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AP U.S. History Bias Still Runs Deep

John Fonte & Stanley Kurtz

The College Board set off a national controversy in the summer of 2014 when it put into effect a sharply revisionist, left-leaning curriculum framework for its AP U.S. History (APUSH) course. Although the College Board initially dismissed the critics, its tune changed after opponents raised the threat of competition from a company advised by top-notch traditional scholars. The result was a revised APUSH curriculum framework issued in the summer of 2015. In a bid to deflect criticism, the College Board removed many of the earlier version’s most biased passages and generally pared back the content. Unfortunately, the underlying bias remains, as does the need for a competing alternative to the College Board.

To illustrate this, we are going to dig deeply into the revised APUSH framework’s coverage of one major theme in American history: immigration. By any reckoning, immigration is an important part of American history. Since “Migration and Settlement” constitutes one of the seven “Thematic Learning Objectives” of the new APUSH framework, the College Board evidently agrees.

The problem with the latest APUSH framework is that it variously downplays, omits, and distorts the significance of the assimilationist ethos in American history. Instead of conveying the nature and importance of assimilation, the College Board projects a contemporary multiculturalist perspective onto earlier eras. This does an injustice both to the facts and to a theme that rightly serves as a foundation for successful civic education: assimilation.

Immigration also featured prominently in the controversy over the 2014 APUSH framework. The background of that framework was an alliance between the College Board and a group of scholars committed to “end[ing] American history as we have known it” by substituting a more transnational narrative for the traditional account. The idea was to cultivate a sense of global citizenship in place of the more usual focus on national identity. Nothing could have been farther from the Founders’ intentions, or from the actual course of American history.

America has been the most successful immigration country in the history of the world precisely because newcomers and their children have assimilated. They have, in the vernacular, become “Americanized.” This assimilation ethos has been with us since the founding. On November 15, 1794, President George Washington wrote Vice President John Adams, worrying that if immigrants are bunched together and settled in a “body . . . They retain the language, habits, and principles (good and bad), which they bring with them. Whereas by an intermixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures, laws: in a word soon become one people.” Political rivals Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton held similar views on the need for assimilation, as did James Madison.

Thus did Congress in 1795 require naturalized citizens to take an oath, not only swearing loyalty to the United States but also renouncing previous political allegiance. Successful assimilation, then, is patriotic assimilation. Abraham Lincoln remarked that although immigrants were not directly descended from the founding generation, by accepting the American creed as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, they became “as though they were the blood of the blood and the flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration, and so they are.” This core American idea of immigration with assimilation is entirely missing from the APUSH framework.

The first tip-off to the framework’s revisionist approach is its frequent use of the word “migration” in place of “immigration.” The word-picture associated with migration (and migratory populations) suggests groups of people moving from one place to another without necessarily sharing any strong ties to their new destination; it does not suggest powerful new bonds of political loyalty grounded in an immigrant’s transfer of allegiance from the “old country” to the United States.

The denationalized “migration” concept was part of the 2014 APUSH controversy. It was noted, for example, that authors of the 2014 framework had recommended highlighting for students the advantages of using “migrant” in place of “immigrant,” while having classes trace the wanderings of those who had merely passed through America without becoming citizens. These exercises were meant to press students “to think beyond national histories.” Not only has the College Board retained this preference for “migration,” but a broader anti-national bias continues to pervade the framework.

The latest version of the framework explains phenomena as diverse as the internal migration of African-Americans from the southern states to other parts of the United States, the westward movement of American settlers across the continent, and immigration to the United States from foreign countries as different forms of “migration.” As a result, the framework blurs, disguises, and simply fails to describe the central significance of the immigration-assimilation narrative in American history. Yet at a moment when the children of immigrants are entering America’s schools in numbers not seen since the heyday of Ellis Island, it becomes more important than ever to get the story of patriotic assimilation as an integral part of civic education right.

Insofar as it treats of assimilation, the framework is off base. Discussing the latter half of the 19th century (p. 62), the framework says: “Increasing public debates over assimilation and Americanization accompanied the growth of international migration. Many immigrants negotiated compromises between the cultures they brought and the culture they found in the United States.” Yet the notion that the assimilation ethos was somehow controversial is largely mistaken.

There was little debate over assimilation and Americanization in the American mainstream (whether among elites or popular opinion), and little “resistance” to assimilationist initiatives from immigrants. Presidents of all parties (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft), immigrant leaders such as Louis Brandeis (the most prominent Jewish American immigrant of the period and a future Supreme Court justice), captains of industry, labor leaders, progressives, and the general public enthusiastically supported the Americanization of immigrants.

To be sure, there were a few proto-multiculturalist intellectuals, particularly Horace Kallen and Randolph Bourne, who objected to assimilation, but their voices were drowned out by the Americanization chorus. The “debate” on assimilation that the College Board is talking about began in the mid-1960s. There was not much debate on assimilation from 1865 to 1965.

To suggest otherwise is to project the modern multiculturalist ethos backwards. That, in turn, renders invisible a major development in American history: the breakup of the “melting pot” consensus after the 1960s and the corresponding rise of warring assimilationist and multiculturalist camps. Perhaps the College Board would prefer not to expose the shallow historical roots of its own multiculturalist perspective.

Throughout the framework, the College Board insists that immigrant communities were somehow fighting off American attempts to assimilate them, that they were keen on “negotiating compromises between cultures.” No doubt there are examples of migrants who rejected the American mainstream, but this was not true of the bulk of the immigrants who settled permanently in America before 1965. Many immigrants, of course, did retain religious and cultural traditions descended from their countries of origin, yet the relative ease with which these traditions were harmonized with what was then proudly called the “American way of life” is notable (particularly when compared with the immigration experiences of other countries). Surely there were concerns about whether immigrants were assimilating and how best to achieve assimilation. But the goal itself was not in fundamental dispute, and that critical fact needs to be clearly conveyed.

When discussing Irish and German “international migrants” in the mid 19th century, the framework highlights their fighting off nativist hostility and settling “in ethnic communities where they could preserve elements of their languages and customs.” This is part of the story, to be sure, yet perhaps less than half of the historical record. What about the assimilationist successes?

American-history courses used to highlight individuals like Carl Schurz (1829–1906), a liberal combatant in the German uprising of 1848 who immigrated to America and rose to be a confidant of Abraham Lincoln, a Union Army general, and the first German-born senator and cabinet secretary. The framework now focuses so strongly on the downside of the immigrant experience that teachers are effectively discouraged from offering such examples.

The College Board’s framework also stacks the deck in favor of the pro-increasing-immigration side of our national debates in two specific instances. First, the framework (p. 72) presents all the proponents of the 1920s legislation that limited immigration as irrational bigots: “Nativist campaigns against some ethnic groups led to the passage of quotas that restricted immigration, particularly from Southern and Eastern Europe, and increased barriers to Asian immigration.”

No doubt a block of the proponents were motivated by ethnic prejudice. However, others, including President Coolidge, future president Herbert Hoover, and mainstream business, labor, military, veteran, and African-American leaders (including major newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and spokesmen such as A. Philip Randolph) believed that immigration should be reduced to assist the assimilation of the large group of immigrants currently in the country, and to keep wages and living conditions good for those already here. President Coolidge’s support of the legislation was not based on ethnic considerations — for example, he vehemently opposed restricting Japanese immigration on those grounds and declared that “our country numbers among its best citizens many of those of foreign birth.”

Second, just before taking note of our present-day immigration debates (p. 87), the framework states that new immigrants have “supplied the economy with an important labor force.” While the contemporary immigrant labor force clearly holds cultural, economic, and historical significance, the College Board’s framing here subtly takes a position in our debates. After all, opponents of increasing immigration argue that the arrival of large numbers of low-skilled immigrants has resulted in wage losses and wage stagnation for American workers in the lower-skilled categories, including many African-Americans and Latino Americans. Indeed, economic arguments against increasing low-skilled immigration were forcefully made by leading African-American historical figures, including Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Our point is not that one side or the other has the better argument, but that the College Board has no business taking sides in a contemporary political dispute. By arguing that new immigrants have “supplied the economy with an important labor force” without presenting the perspective of critics of increased immigration, the College Board effectively does just that.

When the College Board turns to internal migration, the bias is equally striking. This is especially so when treating the greatest internal migration of them all: the settlement of the West. The opening up of the West is one of the great success stories of American history. In the College Board’s rendering, however, the experience is portrayed as largely negative. Western settlement regularly “fuels social, political, and ethnic tensions.” The distinctive blending of individualism, enterprise, and faith unpacked by students of American culture since Alexis de Tocqueville is given only perfunctory attention, while the treatment of the Indians, the destruction of the bison, and such take up most of the space. Manifest Destiny is still portrayed as an arrogant belief in the “superiority” of American institutions, rather than an expansion of the sphere of democratic liberties. And of course the framework refers to “internal migrants” rather than the more positive “pioneers,” a term that (perhaps not surprisingly) never appears in the College Board’s entire American-history framework.

This was already the trend of the 2014 framework, and little in the treatment of the West has changed. All this may have something to do with the fact that New York University historian Maria Montoya, an expert on Western expansion, was a newly appointed member of the committee that supervised the 2015 revisions. Montoya’s work explicitly attacks what she calls “the traditional American Western narrative.” Like other authors of the College Board’s history frameworks, Montoya energetically rejects the concept of American exceptionalism, seeing America’s westward expansion on the model of European imperialist colonialism instead. Montoya criticizes those who portray expansion as the work of “intrepid pioneers” and questions the idea that the movement west helped to create “democratic, free, individuals.” She depicts westward expansion instead as an imperialistic venture that imposed capitalistic ideas of private property on the more communal notions of land ownership held by Mexican Americans and Native Americans. In substance and emphasis, the 2015 revisions closely track Montoya’s view of western expansion.

So a close look at the central theme of “Migration and Settlement” in the revised APUSH framework reveals that very little has changed since the controversial 2014 edition was issued. A few of the more incendiary passages have been removed, but the overall tilt toward multiculturalist revisionism and contemporary progressive politics remains. The many APUSH textbooks that already lean this way would have nothing of significance to change, even if the College Board were to insist on revisions (which it has not done). The supposed addition of a new “Thematic Learning Objective” on “American and National Identity” has little content to it, as witness the fact that both American exceptionalism and the assimilationist ethos are essentially absent from the framework.

On grounds of both historical accuracy and the imperatives of civic education, we believe that far greater emphasis on America’s assimilationist ethos is called for. To the extent that others may disagree, that only strengthens the case for competition in Advanced Placement testing. There should be no official version of American history. Only the creation of an advanced-placement testing company able to offer a true alternative to the College Board’s version of history can restore choice to states, school districts, and the voters they represent.

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