Academic Freedom Cited on Both sides of the Debate over AP U.S. History

As part of our second topic in our course we learned about and discussed academic freedom in higher education. Several articles have been written lately on several state governments have tried to introduce laws that limit what can be taught as part of high school AP U.S. History courses. Advanced Placement (AP) courses are college-level courses taught in high school, and at the end of the course students may be able to earn college credit if they score well on a standardized AP course exam. While AP courses are taught to high school students, it is the first experience many students have in the deep level of critical thinking on issues that characterizes university-level education. This is especially true in a humanities or social studies topic such as U.S. History, where critical thinking and interpretation is more important that simply remembering and repeating names and dates of events.

 According to a recent Inside Higher Ed article (Source 1) Oklahoma state lawmakers have introduced a bill to change the law that would review and change the newest version of AP U.S. History curriculum. The article’s author states that similar efforts are currently in progress in Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Colorado.

 Some in these states and elsewhere have issue with the new AP U.S. history curriculum because they believe the course’s final exam for college credit ignores “important aspects of American history and cast it in too negative a light.” For example, issues have been raised with how the new curriculum considers the westward expansion of the U.S. into Native American and Mexican lands. The Republican National Committee, which organizes policy for one of the U.S.’s Republican political party, has asked state legislators to pass laws that keep funding away from the College Board (a private organization that oversees AP courses and curricula) until changes are made to the AP U.S. History curricula. Those seeking changes state that the new curriculum is limiting academic freedom because the new curriculum has reduced “the freedom of states, school districts, teachers and parents to choose the history they teach their children.”

 In contrast, those in support of the AP U.S. History curriculum changes see the attacks on the curriculum as attacks on academic freedom. For example, the Chair of Western History at the University of Oklahoma, claimed that there is “universal” opposition to the bill among higher education and high school faculty in the state. Defenders of the AP curriculum also state that the new AP curriculum supports academic freedom by asking “students to think critically about different pieces of evidence and different perspectives.” Those in favor of the curriculum also note that the new test focuses more on the issues of poverty and American culture and policy after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which previously received little discussion as part of the AP U.S. history exam.

 This article was interesting to me for multiple reasons. It shows that those in the U.S. with very different political and cultural views toward history and higher education each see “academic freedom” as a positive thing, or else each side would not have claimed to be supporting academic freedom as part of their arguments. While conservatives claim to be defending the academic freedom of individual teachers and high schools, the College Board and other higher education professionals claim to be defending the academic freedom to consider and analyze new historical topics in new ways. This shows that the topic of academic freedom is not always a simple issue. However, the freedom for students to think critically about—and teachers to teach about—history and other topics is important. To the extent to which the AP U.S. History curriculum allows for new and multiple interpretations of past events and trends, this should be encouraged. As this issue continues to be debated, it is important to support academic freedom both in terms of the topics to be discussed as well as allowing different interpretations of these topics by students.

 Sources:

Flaherty, C. (2015, February 23). Whose History? Retrieved from

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/02/23/oklahoma-legislature-targets-ap-us-history-framework-being-negative

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