Courtesy of the British Library
The College Board recently revised its framework for its Advanced Placement United States History course (APUSH), which is taught to about five hundred thousand American high school students each year. Conservatives have reacted to the new APUSH framework with collective outrage. The Republican National Committee charged that it “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” Rush Limbaugh told his large radio audience that the College Board is trying to remove “the whole concept of American exceptionalism” from the APUSH curriculum. This is a grave problem for Limbaugh, who wrote an entire trilogy of children’s books on the premise that “America is special because it is different from all other countries in history. It is a land built on true freedom and individual liberty and it defends both around the world.” (1)
If such right-wing anger lacked a coherent intellectual framework, conservative writer Stanley Kurtz changed that with his scathing critique of the College Board published on the National Review’s website in August 2014. In Kurtz’s view, the new APUSH framework threatens the traditional narrative of American exceptionalism because it is beholden to “a movement of left-leaning historians that aims to ‘internationalize’ the teaching of American history.” The goal of these historians, according to Kurtz, is to encourage Americans to eschew unilateral military force in favor of embracing international agencies such as the United Nations. (2)
Kurtz’s article is hyperbolic. But it is not entirely wrong. New York University historian Thomas Bender, one of the central figures in longstanding disciplinary efforts to place the American past in a transnational context, has been quite explicit that such an approach might soften how the nation projects its power to the rest of the world. Bender wrote his 2006 book, A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History, in order to encourage readers to quit thinking about the United States as an exceptional nation. For Bender, internationalizing the U.S. history curriculum will help fulfill anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s maxim that we see “ourselves amongst others.” An international perspective would be a cure for an increasingly outmoded nationalist perspective. “Nineteenth-century nationalist ideology became embedded in the development of history as a discipline,” Bender writes, “but it obscures the actual experience of national societies and produces a narrow parochialism at a time when we need a wider cosmopolitanism.” (3)
A Nation among Nations is a chronological reinterpretation of U.S. history from so-called discovery to the early twenty-first century. Bender’s chapter on the Civil War, “Freedom in an Age of Nation-Making,” demonstrates how the transnational approach can help reveal “the actual experience” of Americans, in this instance, of Americans at odds over slavery. Bender writes: “Neither the causes, meanings, nor results of the Civil War can be understood adequately outside the international context of liberal ideas of nationality and freedom that were so passionately held—and fought for—in the middle of the nineteenth century.” (4)
If the best recent scholarship is any indication, Bender was on to something. Take for example W. Caleb McDaniel’s award-winning The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform (2013). While not necessarily downplaying long-held assumptions about William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist motivations (such as his religious beliefs), McDaniel accentuates Garrison’s affinities with John Stuart Mill and Giuseppe Mazzini, the leading European proponents of liberalism and nationalism. “The primary experience that Garrison, Mill, and Mazzini had in common was that of being antislavery in an age of slavery,” McDaniel writes. “But they also defended democracy in an age of aristocracy, monarchy, and doubt about democracy’s future.” (5)
Although particularities continue to matter—Garrison, Mill, and Mazzini formulated their political conceptions in response to political cues that differed across local and national contexts—the commonalities of a larger, international milieu also helped shape their thought and action. Garrison fought for the abolition of slavery, in part, because he participated in a transnational conversation about democracy and the threats to it, especially slavery. In this way McDaniel’s book is a response to Bender’s plea that historians elaborate on how abolitionism and northern Civil War efforts were closely tied with “European liberal and nationalist aspirations.” (6)
Bender’s project has improved our historical understanding of the United States by widening our lens. It has made our telling of the past more accurate. But Kurtz and his fellow conservatives are less concerned with challenging Bender’s history and more interested in charging him and the College Board with a political conspiracy to indoctrinate American students. The bulk of Kurtz’s National Review piece is dedicated to retracing the ways in which international-minded historians shaped College Board efforts to revise the APUSH framework. The Organization of American Historians (OAH) is a key villain in Kurtz’s narrative. According to Kurtz, the inspiration for the new APUSH framework is “The LaPietra Report: A Report to the Profession” (2000), an OAH publication based on a project led by Bender and involving nearly eighty historians from around the world, that sought “more complex understandings of the American nation’s relation to a world that is at once self-consciously global and highly pluralized.” “The LaPietra Report” was a programmatic response to increased awareness of globalization: “A history that recognizes the historicity of different forms of solidarity”—including solidarities that cross national boundaries—”promises to better prepare students and the public to understand and to be effective in the world we live in and will live in.” For Kurtz, any solidarity beyond traditional American patriotism is inherently suspect. This is why he accentuates the supposedly sinister fact that Francesca Lopez Civeira, a Cuban historian from the University of Havana, was among the foreign historians who helped prepare “The LaPietra Report.” “How can American conservatives, moderates, and even traditional liberals,” Kurtz asks, “trust an AP U.S. History redesign effort led by figures who were so deeply enmeshed in a leftist attempt to reshape the American history curriculum?” (7)
Although Kurtz carefully documents the close ties among the College Board, OAH, cosmopolitan historians such as Bender, and foreign historians such as Civeira, he fails to examine the newly revised APUSH framework itself. Perhaps this is because the actual framework is far less internationalist than Kurtz’s shrill warnings indicate. Of the seven new “thematic learning objectives,” only one—”America in the world”—is explicitly grounded in an effort to internationalize the curriculum. And this objective is hardly the stuff of socialist revolution: “In this theme, students should focus on the global context in which the United States originated and developed as well as the inﬂuence of the United States on world affairs.” Though such objectives will seem anodyne to most professional historians, the rationale for conservative anger becomes clear upon closer analysis. (8)
The “America in the world” objective requires that students be prepared to “explain how U.S. involvement in global conﬂicts in the 20th century set the stage for domestic social changes.” This is consistent with the argument, made by Mary Dudziak in her groundbreaking 2000 book Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy, that civil rights legal achievements were partly made possible by Cold War imperatives. Winning the hearts and minds of people in Africa and other non-white parts of the world was made difficult by the racial caste system known as Jim Crow, a fact recognized by a growing number of American political elites during the Cold War. This argument has been received with relatively little controversy in the history profession. But such international-mindedness annoys conservatives because it suggests that American legal change is somehow beholden to international developments. It belies the idea that the American legal system is exceptionally self-correcting, even when it comes to race relations. The right-wing revolt against the internationalization of the U.S. history curriculum thus boils down to this: it unmasks American exceptionalism as mythology. (9)
The backlash against the APUSH framework and the internationalization of the U.S. history curriculum is a recent episode in the culture wars, that dramatic struggle which has pitted liberal and secular Americans against their conservative and traditionally religious counterparts, and which has captured the attention of the nation since the 1960s. One prominent front in the culture wars has been the struggle over whether the purpose of American history is to make Americans proud of the nation’s glorious past or to encourage citizens to reflect on its complexities and even its moral failings. Professional historians, many of whom share the sensibilities of activists who radically challenged traditional American norms during the 1960s and thus set the stage for the culture wars, have increasingly analyzed the nation’s past in ways that complicate the traditional narrative of American glory. They understand that slavery and other such historical blights cannot be explained away as aberrations. In contrast, most conservatives continue to think about the American past as a tale of national greatness. In short, the gulf between how professional historians explain the nation’s history and how many of their fellow Americans understand it has grown to immense proportions. As a result, when professional historians seek to interject new forms of historical knowledge into the public world beyond the ivory tower—for example, when they seek to extend their scholarship into the public school curriculum—a clash of cultures ensues. (10)
One of the most infamous culture clashes of the 1990s was the debate over the National History Standards, a comprehensive history curriculum that went to press in October 1994 and was intended to serve as a model for teachers nationwide. Most of those responsible for the creation of the Standards—the result of a multi-year collaboration unprecedented in size and scope—considered the final product a remarkable achievement. The document, the authors believed, would help bridge the gulf between the historical discipline’s best practices and the historical knowledge taught to millions of American schoolchildren. Since the Standards reflected professional historical practices, it came as no surprise that social history, which had been in the historiographical vanguard since the 1970s, was an important frame for the curriculum. And since the project of social history was to unearth the histories of peoples long neglected by a discipline over-attuned to political and economic elites, and since social historians sought to prove that even oppressed peoples helped determine the warp and woof of history (that even the wretched had “agency”), there should have been little surprise when the Standards came under attack by conservatives. Indeed, Lynne Cheney blanched that the Standards portrayed American history as “grim and gloomy,” and Limbaugh denounced them as a “bastardization of American history” that should be flushed “down the sewer of multiculturalism.” (11)
Both the revised APUSH framework and the National History Standards threatened the idea that the United States is a city on a hill. But whereas the Standards disrupted the traditional story of American greatness by introducing new historical figures into the narrative, such as slaves and others for whom the American nation was anything but a symbol of freedom, the revised APUSH framework unsettles American mythologies by placing the nation’s past in an international context. Instead of the exceptional nation, the United States is merely a nation among nations. In this way, the internationalization of the U.S. history curriculum—and the APUSH controversy—reminds us once again that historical thinking is value-laden. Richard White has written that “history destroys without malice.” This is true, insofar as new modes of analysis to study the past will inevitably demolish many of our preconceptions. And yet, it should not surprise when conservatives view the butchering of their sacred cows as a malicious act. (12)
The APUSH controversy, and the objections to the internationalization of the U.S. history curriculum, is just one skirmish in the long history wars. An end to hostilities is unlikely in the foreseeable future. We might chuckle and shake our heads in disbelief when Fox News contributor Ben Carson warns that the new APUSH framework will convince young Americans “to go sign up for ISIS,” the Islamic group that controls large swaths of Iraq and is infamous for its videotaped beheadings of westerners. But we should not easily dismiss the conservative rationale undergirding such outlandish sentiments. Rather, we should relish the fact that history continues to matter. (13)
Andrew Hartman is an associate professor of history at Illinois State University. He is the author of Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School (2008) and A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (2015).
(1) Pema Levy, “What’s Driving Conservatives Mad about the New AP History Course,” Newsweek, Aug. 14, 2014. Doktor Zoom, “Rush Limbaugh’s Crappy Books Will Save Kids from A.P. History,” Wonkette, Dec.4, 2014.
(2) Stanley Kurtz, “How the College Board Politicized U.S. History,” National Review Online, Aug. 25, 2014.
(3) Thomas Bender, A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History (2006), 10, 3.
(4) Ibid., 122.
(5) W. Caleb McDaniel, The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform (2013), 3.
(6) Bender, A Nation among Nations, 124.
(7) Thomas Bender, “The LaPietra Report: A Report to the Profession,” Organization of American Historians (2000).
(8) College Board, “AP United States History: Course and Exam Description Including the Curriculum Framework” (2014), p. 25.
(9) Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (2000).
(10) Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (2015).
(11) Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (2000), 4, 5.
(12) For the Richard White quote, see Sam Wineburg, “Unnatural and Essential: The Nature of Historical Thinking,” Teaching History, 129 (Dec. 2007), 7.
(13) Caitlin MacNeal, “Ben Carson: AP History Would Make Kids Want to ‘Sign Up for ISIS,'” Talking Points Memo, Sep. 30, 2014.