The conservative movement has homed in on an unlikely source: the way that AP U.S. History is taught. Since the College Board initially released a revised framework in October 2012, it has sparked an incredible backlash — mainly among conservatives — who dubbed it unpatriotic and “revisionist.” Last week, after a local school board rebuked the new framework, students and teachers staged a dramatic walkout.
This can largely be traced to one man: Retired history teacher Larry Krieger, has been at the forefront of the fight against the College Board’s new framework for about a year. After Krieger criticized the framework, the College Board publicly defended the changes and recently clarified the instructions for teachers in hopes of mollifying critics. That doesn’t appear to be enough for Krieger.
“They did not actually change so much as one word,” Krieger told TPM. “I had hoped that the College Board would be responsive to the growing outcry for changes.”
Krieger (pictured, right) started his campaign against the new exam last September after he a realized that the College Board’s revision was lengthier than he had imagined. Krieger, a former AP U.S. History teacher from North Carolina who now works as a tutor and has written test prep books for AP exams, sat down to examine the new framework since he figured he might have to revise his books.
“I was shocked by what wasn’t in the framework and what was in the framework,” he told TPM. “The more I read, the more I disliked it.”
He decided to speak out against the new framework and partnered up with Jane Robbins, an opponent of voluntary educational Common Core standards more than 40 states have adopted — which as also become hot-button political issue.
Krieger and Robbins have written numerous pieces, including for Breitbart and the conservative Heartland Institute, laying out their arguments against the new framework.
The Republican National Committee seized on Krieger’s take and passed a resolution condemning the framework, which Krieger said “did kick things to a new level.” Local and state school boards took up his cause in states like Texas and Colorado. They have decried the changes as negative, unpatriotic and “revisionist.”
Krieger’s criticism centers on a few key points: he is concerned that the College Board left out major Founding Fathers and key works like that of Alexis de Tocqueville, along with other important figures and events. He is also concerned that the framework draws a negative picture of the U.S. from a global perspective.
Though most of the agreement comes from conservatives, “this really should be a nonpartisan issue,” Krieger insisted to TPM, and won’t call the new changes “liberal.” Yet he has embraced the attention his cause has gotten from the National Review. Krieger praised Stanley Kurtz’s “seminal articles” in which Kurtz claimed that the new framework was tied to a “movement of left-leaning historians that aims to ‘internationalize’ the teaching of American history.”
Krieger and other critics have complained that the course places too much emphasis on topics like slavery and the Japanese internment camps during World War II. Krieger said that he believes students need to learn about these “areas where we’ve fallen short of our ideals,” but that he is asking for “a balanced presentation.”
He is particularly concerned that “the concept of American exceptionalism has been deliberately scrubbed out of this document.”
“Consider for a moment, from the beginning to President Obama’s recent declaration of why we had to wipe out ISIS, why do we send American boys and women into harm’s way to pay any price, bear any burden? We do that because they are the defenders of liberty and freedom — in short, our core values,” he said of American exceptionalism. “And so to scrub that out of the American narrative is a real egregious injustice.”
“People who call themselves liberals haven’t really understood what … American exceptionalism means, and why it is so extremely important that it be taught to our kids,” he said. “Because what unites us as a people — we’re not united by ethnic differences, religious differences, we’re united by our core values.”
Krieger argued that teaching American exceptionalism is the “standard, traditional, widely accepted approach.”
It’s not clear, however, that the College Board’s new framework is particularly radical.
According to Scott Casper, history professor and Dean of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, this debate isn’t exactly new.
Casper, who also edits the “Textbooks and Teaching” section of the Journal of American History, said the College Board’s new framework reflects a shift that’s occurred over the past few decades in American history education. He said that colleges and high schools have been placing more emphasis on “historical thinking skills” and primary source documents and have moved away from memorization.
And there’s also been a shift in topics covered by U.S. history classes. Casper said historians and schools are now incorporating the stories of women, African-Americans and immigrants to a greater extent.
As for the concept of American exceptionalism, Casper said that the term “gained considerable force and power” during the Cold War when the U.S. tried to differentiate itself from the Soviet Union.
“The very concept of American exceptionalism is something that has waxed and waned over time. It was not the timeless way to teach American history,” he said.
Casper said the new AP U.S. history curriculum is “neither crazy nor new.” And same goes for the debate over how to teach history.
“Those who criticize the teaching of what they call revisionist history are certainly part of a long tradition because every time we learn more about the past, we are revising our understanding of the past,” he said. “So in a sense, history is always revisionist.”
Krieger is still hopeful that state schools boards will put enough pressure on the College Board for them to alter the new framework. He said he would ideally like the organization to return to the old course outline. At the very least he hopes the College Board will add the people and events Krieger believes were wrongly left out.
Ultimately, if the College Board doesn’t budge, Krieger said there may be a push to break up the College Board “monopoly,” though he said it would be a long way off.
“There could be challenges to the College Board,” he said. “And in effect their monopolistic position on AP — a monopoly that’s subsidized by the Department of Education.”
“Questions are being raised about the College Board and their nonprofit status,” he added. “So this is going to go pretty far.”
This post has been updated.