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Can We Save AP World History?

The demands for rote memorization, coupled with Western centrism, are failing our students.
Christopher Columbus landing in America, 1492, as depicted by Spanish painter Dioscoro de la Puebla Torin.

Christopher Columbus landing in America, 1492, as depicted by Spanish painter Dioscoro de la Puebla Torin.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of high school students take Advanced Placement history classes in pursuit of prestige and college credit. Although classroom teachers have some autonomy in these courses, the goal for students is to succeed on a standardized nationwide test developed, distributed, and evaluated by the College Board, a non-profit governing body. In May, the College Board announced a radical change to AP World History: Instead of covering 10,000 years of human history, the new course would begin at the cusp of the European colonial era, in 1450 C.E. They might as well have just said that world history didn't really begin until Christopher Columbus, Atlantic slavery, and the North American genocides.

Teachers and students were outraged. A video of a testy exchange between Trevor Packer, senior vice president of Advanced Placement at the College Board, and educators concerned about the changes, has been viewed over 10,000 times on YouTube—pretty remarkable numbers for what's basically a curricular Q&A. The College Board defended its decision by explaining in a statement that the "scope of content" in the original class was "simply too broad," requiring teachers "to sacrifice depth to cover it all in a single year." Still, recognizing the serious pushback, in mid-July the College Board released its new recommendation: Start the class at 1200 C.E. and create a second AP class covering the previous 9,200 years.

It's a weird solution that smacks of a public relations move. The College Board had touted the virtues of its slow, deliberative process in arriving at the new 1450 curriculum, then abruptly reversed course. Moreover, it still leaves the 9,000-years class subject to all the challenges of covering so many millennia—if anyone actually teaches it.

There's a better way, and the key is understanding that the College Board isn't entirely wrong. It's not possible to cover 10,000 years (or 9,200 years) in a single class, and no one should try to do so. But instead of yanking world history into a Eurocentric framework, or arbitrarily picking the weirdly irrelevant date of 1200, why not take this opportunity to do something better? Specifically, let's stop emphasizing the need to "cover" the past, meaning building courses around specific historical dates and events, and instead build a curriculum that centers the real work of history: asking questions, marshaling evidence, making arguments, and learning how to learn.

The College Board's statements defending the abridgment of the course really come down to a mistaken focus on the impossibility of progressing through 10,000 years of history without skipping over too many important events, people, or other kinds of developments. It's true. No one can cover everything. But here's a secret: There's no history class on any topic that covers everything important or interesting related to that topic. This truism applies both to highly specific courses—the history of London or of the 1960s, for example—as well as to those that sweep across millennia and cover multiple continents. History is packed with stuff. This is one of the joys of the subject and one of the challenges of constructing good classes. There's always more to be taught. But what we select to teach isn't neutral. Our curricula reveal both pedagogical objectives and intellectual biases. In the College Board's initial decision, we see both: Western historical bias is the only factor that would drive a group to select 1450 as the opening date. More subtly, the goal of "coverage" as a pedagogical objective is always doomed to fail.

In talking to educators at both college and high school levels, I kept hearing the same message: AP World History was developed in part to counter the modernism and Western focus of AP U.S. History and AP European History. The course launched in 2002 and has steadily become more widely adopted over the years. From 2006 to 2016, annual participation in the test grew from around 85,000 to over 285,000. Enrollment in AP U.S. History grew from around 310,000 to almost 490,000. By contrast, AP European History only grew from 91,000 to 110,000 over the same period. AP U.S. and European History classes both start in 1450 C.E., and are centered around European colonization, empire, slavery, and then industrialization. World History ought to provide a different model.

Statements from professional historians' organizations mirror these broader concerns about losing what made AP World History so special. A statement from the American Historical Association says: "The revisions strike at the heart of what made APWH uniquely inclusive. It highlights interconnections among peoples that cut across vast swathes of space and time. [AP World] confronts teachers and students with big narratives that require long-term historical analysis, like climate change, nationalism, the historical construction of race, and global inequality." The Medieval Academy, expressing concern over the presentism of high school history curricula, writes: "By beginning 'world history' in 1450, the College Board is essentially sending the message that pre-modern culture and events are unimportant. It is impossible to make sense out of the political and historical climate of the mid-15th century without a grounding in what came before. It is especially unfortunate to suggest, with the 1450 start date, that 'world history' effectively begins with the arrival of white Europeans in North America, coupled with the mass extinction (chiefly through disease) of substantial segments of native populations." A group of AP World History teachers launched a website to "Save AP World History," characterizing the changes as "gutting the current course to the point that it will no longer merit the title it will nonetheless retain: 'World History.' In practical terms, the College Board will be offering a modern Western Civilizations course."

A College Board spokesperson tells me via email that, while the organization is willing to include some concepts from pre 1450 (as evidenced by the shift to 1200 C.E. as a start date), the course simply was too big. A quote attributed to Packer asserts the need to limit the "scope of the content that will be assessed on the exam." In other words, the College Board is still fixated on how many years the class includes, rather than on which ideas the class is addressing.

This focus on dates and coverage over time is a mistake that lies at the heart of the current controversy. The whole point of a thematic class is to eschew being controlled by the rote need to cover a lot of content. Instead, the goal is to draw students through historical motifs, great problems, and enduring questions about humanity. There are lots of ways to organize such classes; I like to look at encounters throughout human history, emphasizing that there has never been an era without the movement of peoples, objects, and ideas, but also that such encounters are often involuntary and come at great cost. Other teachers at both high school and college levels whom I know prefer to use case studies, choosing a balanced array of diverse places and cultures on which to concentrate. The important thing to remember is that the scale of a 10,000-year course forces us to rethink our natural fear of leaving something out. Something's always left out of every class anyway.

Eric Beckman, a member of the Minnesota Council for History Education who has been teaching high school history for nearly 30 years, including AP European and World, seems a little mystified that the College Board has made this controversial move. "Although AP World History, obviously, covers a lot more time and space than AP US History," he tells me via email, "it actually has fewer key concepts. Similarly, in the Minnesota state standards, there are more benchmarks for U.S. History than for World History." In other words, the course by design doesn't mandate an overwhelming mastery of 10,000 years of detail, but rather encourages synthesis and pursuit of thematic understandings.

I was a history professor for 10 years and now advise undergraduates at a large public university who want to major in history. One day last spring, a student came into my office to declare a history major. As we chatted about her decision, she reflected on how unsatisfying high school history had been (although it had inspired her enough to get her into my office). "In high school, history was about finding answers. But in college, it's about asking questions," she said. That's obviously not true in all high schools, but her comment reflected a problem in high school history courses, one that I worry is linked to the demand for "coverage." Let's take this moment of controversy and keep pushing to build an Advanced Placement history curriculum that recognizes the impossibility of coverage—the dreaded memorizing of names and dates—and instead engages teachers and students in the far more interesting and important task of asking good questions about the past.