Enquirer Herald

AP courses should teach critical thinking

History, despite what some might say, is a malleable subject. While dates, names and events may be concrete, much of what happened in the past – and why it happened – is open to interpretation.

That’s why historians still are writing accounts about America’s wars, biographies of its founding fathers, essays about its epochal achievements and books about its famous and infamous people. It’s not that America’s history changes, it’s that we find new ways, new angles of looking at it.

The South Carolina conservatives who are attacking the College Board’s Advanced Placement U.S. history course, which is offered to the state’s high school students for college credit, seem to believe that the nation’s history is little more than a collection of names and dates that must be viewed through a lens of pro-American, patriotic fervor. And, they say, any deviation from that viewpoint represents “a liberal bias” that puts a negative slant on American history.

The critics say the course contains negative portrayals of American history and omits important people, including Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Franklin and Dwight Eisenhower. They have called for the College Board to rewrite the framework for the course so that it “accurately reflects U.S. history without an ideological bias.”

In the middle of this dispute is Sheri Few, who finished third in June’s Republican primary for state school superintendent. She is a member of S.C. Parents Involved in Education, a nonprofit the state pays to develop abstinence-based sex-education materials.

But S.C. Parents Involved in Education also is staunchly opposed to Common Core, and much of Few’s platform in the primary consisted of attacks on Common Core’s education standards. And there’s a link to Common Core in her new crusade against the AP history course: David Coleman, president of the College Board, which oversees the AP guidelines, also was co-founder of a nonprofit that played a role in developing the Common Core standards.

Voters had the good sense to reject Few’s narrowly focused campaign for superintendent. And the College Board should ignore the latest version of her tirade against so-called liberal, anti-American plots to undermine education.

As supporters of the AP history course note, the outline for the course that Few and her cronies are attacking is only a broad overview of the course guidelines. The redesigned AP U.S. framework, which has been in the works since 2006, couldn’t list every event or person of historical significance in the nation’s history.

But teachers know to include them in their lessons. Teachers say they still cover the same broad scope of U.S. history as they did before the new guidelines were established, ranging from pre-colonial America to the 1980s.

How could you teach that history and not talk about Franklin, Eisenhower and King?

What has changed, say supporters of the course, is the new emphasis on critical thinking about historic events. Those who devised the guidelines want students to recall historical facts but also to be able to analyze why they matter.

While critics say they want a course free of ideological bias, what they actually want is one that reflects their own bias. We agree that the course outline should not be guided by ideology – from either end of the political spectrum.

The greatness of America lies in the freedom Americans have to express opinions openly, to challenge the accepted wisdom, to analyze and interpret the historical record and to make a case for revising the existing accounts of our history. One goal of this AP history course is to help students do that in a scholarly way.

Advanced Placement courses offer high school students the opportunity to earn college credits if they score high enough on the AP exam. The courses, generally taken by juniors and seniors, are designed to be more rigorous that standard classes in the same subjects.

If we want South Carolina students to be better prepared to do the critical thinking that will be required of them in college, and to be competitive with students in other states, they need access to courses like this. We shouldn’t let narrow-minded activists like Sheri Few stand in their way.