Profs say US history guidelines would shortchange college-bound seniors


Neither Ben Franklin nor Martin Luther King Jr. make an appearance in the College Board’s AP US History guidelines.

Dozens of historians have sent the influential College Board back to the drawing board, after determining that its U.S. history exam for university-bound high schoolers is too heavy on social politics and too light on key events in America’s past.

While the College Board can’t directly dictate what is taught in high school Advanced Placement classes, by writing the test that half a million college-bound students take each year it strongly influences the curriculum crafted by teachers. It also publishes a guide to what will be on the test, which was what raised alarms with 55 historians who signed onto a letter earlier this month criticizing the board.

“Lost in the new guidelines is the central role of the American Founders in inspiring our country,” Harvard University history professor Harvey Mansfield, who signed the letter, told “Students are not led to the idea that America is an experiment in self-government, that all its struggles and troubles, its drama and heroes, come back to its great ambition to make freedom and equality a reality.

“ … the guidelines present America as just another society, wandering, mistaken, prejudiced and boring.”

– Harvey Mansfield, Harvard history professor

“Instead of this,” Mansfield said, “the guidelines present America as just another society, wandering, mistaken, prejudiced and boring.”

The guide, released last year, fails to mention unifying figures in American history, such as Benjamin Franklin and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., even once. Instead, it focuses on divisions in America.

“Students should be able to explain how various identities, cultures and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history, with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial and ethnic identities,” reads one passage.

The curriculum also says that markets widened inequality, yet fails to mention that economic freedom caused America’s prosperity.

“The market revolution helped to widen a gap between rich and poor,” the curriculum reads. “[It] shaped emerging middle and working classes, and caused an increasing separation between home and workplace, which led to dramatic transformations in gender and in family roles and expectations.”

David Coleman, president of the College Board, has pledged to revise the guidelines, and said that the group agreed with critics that “history courses should foster a rich understanding of positive and inspiring events, individuals and ideas — and should resist a disproportionate focus on instances when Americans have failed to live up to the ideals on which our nation was founded.”

A College Board spokesman reiterated to that the guide will be revised this summer.

“This new edition will clarify and encourage a balanced approach to the teaching of American history, while remaining faithful to the requirements that colleges and universities set for academic credit,” Zach Goldberg told

Historians hope to see a number of things modified in the upcoming version, noting in their letter that the current curriculum “is organized around such abstractions as ‘identity,’ ‘peopling,’ ‘work, exchange, and technology,’ and ‘human geography,’ while downplaying essential subjects.”

Without fixes, the historians wrote, “gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals.”

Maxim Lott can be reached at or at