The History Wars
Facts Are Stubborn Things

What both conservatives and liberals are missing in the fight over the new AP U.S. History standards.

Published on: September 14, 2014
Nicholas M. Gallagher is staff writer at The American Interest and research associate to Walter Russell Mead.
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  • Alex Christman

    I loved the editorial, and I agree with many of your points (if not the conclusion). Despite my status as the chief Neanderthal in my high school (I even wear a Nixon campaign button and teach a side course in American Military History), I still defend the new system. I haven’t stopped forcing my students to learn massive amounts of information, and my lectures have remained unchanged. I appreciate the new test; I think it encourages students to see both sides of historical arguments rather than memorize and regurgitate left-wing (or right-wing) orthodoxy. I have read the new rubric for the essay portion of the exam, and students are still expected to include a large amount of outside facts in their responses. The difference is that teachers won’t be told exactly which facts to include, and students are expected to be able to glean facts from primary sources rather than rote memorization of notes.

    I admit I may be viewing this with rose-colored glasses. As a teacher who never earned an education degree (instead I have a BA & MS in American History) I don’t need College Board to tell me which facts are most important to the narrative of our great Republic. I feel certain that all APUSH teachers are still teaching Marbury v. Madison, George Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr. However, students and teachers will have more freedom when it comes to the smaller details. In an essay on the Pacific War, every student would be expected to know Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, and internment camps. Some students would also include Korematsu v. U.S., Navajo codetalkers, Zoot Suit Riots, or the Port Chicago mutiny. My students (I hope) would be more likely to include the Battle of Midway, Chester Nimitz, island hopping, and the Bataan Death March. I think this diversity of facts was probably happening already, and College Board has modified the test to fit the current classroom reality.

    However, perhaps other teachers without a strong liberal arts background will be left adrift. Perhaps I am also giving College Board too much credit, and they really expect APUSH to turn into a thematic course rather than a narrative (heaven forbid). For now I will give them the benefit of the doubt, and I hope that your fears are mistaken.

  • Andrew Allison

    “This shift from having to know the facts to having to know only the conclusions . . .” smacks of teaching what, rather than how to think. The statement that “Supreme Court decisions sought to assert federal power over state laws and the primacy of the judiciary in determining the meaning of the Constitution” also troubles me. Surely it is the duty of the Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality of federal and state laws, not to assert federal power over the latter?

    • jimb82

      To be fair, there is plenty of reason to believe that each of the federal branches and the states, and indeed each person who takes an oath to the Constitution, has a duty to determine constitutionality (and of course the Supremacy Clause is part of the Constitution). The Supreme Court in Marbury v. Madison asserted the power to be the final arbiter of constitutionality. That power has never been seriously challenged, but it is perhaps logically not required. The executive branch has, from time to time, determined a statute to be unconstitutional and has refused to apply it. There is serious question as to whether the courts have standing to resolve this dispute. Therefore, it appears that in some cases the executive may very well be who actually determines the constitutionality of federal and state laws.

      • Andrew Allison

        Whilst the oaths of office for elected officials require them to defend the constitution, it is the responsibility of the judicial branch to resolve challenges to the laws they pass (which are frequently found to be unconstitutional), the Supreme Court being the final arbiter. This, surely, is the essence of the separation of powers. I’m no constitutional scholar, but it appears to me that the reach of the Federal Government, and hence the Supremacy Clause, is subject to the Tenth Amendment.

      • David E.M. Thompson

        You speaking for Obama? He couldn’t do it better himself.

        • jimb82

          How about Ed Meese?

  • jeburke

    It seems to me the framework junking facts for airy fairy “themes” and conclusions is perfectly consistent with its pushing a left-wing revisionist perspective. The latter has a superficial appeal but it cannot stand up to the scrutiny of facts.

    • Thirdsyphon

      Facts are stubborn things, but historians can (and often do) extrapolate widely divergent theories from the same chain of undisputed events. Do great civilizations rise and fall because of factors that are ultimately grounded in economics (Karl Marx), culture (Oswald Spengler), energy transfers (Leslie White), technology + immunology (Jared Diamond), or something else?

      I’m not a fan of this change, and I think it’s on balance a bad idea; but the facts themselves don’t compel allegiance to any given ideology.

  • This points up a more general pedagogical crisis. Students “get” their subjects when their body of knowledge is big enough that their brains can synthesize new ideas from a set of facts that are deeply learned and linked together. It doesn’t matter whether the set of facts is a couple of hundred historical ideas or fifty algebraic techniques or twenty physical formulae. The student “knows” the subject when the framework to think about it is there, and that framework is made out of things that are so well known that their truth is no longer in question.

    But it’s boring learning that stuff when you can hit up Wikipedia whenever you want. So we’ve stripped off even the miniscule amount of fun that comes from knowing stuff, because, after all, anybody can know stuff now, and there’s very little status or even satisfaction that comes from knowing it without having to type something into a search box. But at the same time human neurology hasn’t changed; the only way to understand something is still to internalize the fact sets necessary to synthesize new ideas.

    Until we reconcile the IT with the neurological facts of life, we’re going to wind up with generations of students that have poor mastery of a wide variety of subjects. I think the answer is ultimately to spend more time on mastery of facts, not less. The trick is to use the technology to make the assimilation of the facts more efficient.

    • David E.M. Thompson

      “End up with?” We already have several.

  • Anthony

    “I believe that both sides are missing the point. The new revisions aren’t objectionable because the history they teach is left-wing. They’re objectionable because they don’t teach much history at all, good or bad.” As author implies instructional U.S. history requires both rigor and attention to facts (narrative and context); “few other single courses matter as much for the future of American democracy.” APUSH, even as survey, minimally covers (because of time constraints generally) expanse of European Exploration (1492) to post Cold War/ISIS (2014) now considered typical time frame for U.S. high school history acclimation – facts remain contextually essential.

  • David E.M. Thompson

    ” . . . an airy-fairy mix of vapid ‘themes’ and ‘topics’ that will leave most students bored, confused, and completely unprepared for further college study . . . ”

    Perfect description – professional educrats/educationists at work, even in my field – Math.

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  • TheProudDuck

    Most people who bang on about favoring “critical thinking” over command of facts, are too lazy to obtain a foundation in either.

  • Josh Garner

    Besides the one commenter who actually has taught an APUSH course and understands both what history is and how to teach it, everyone else on this blog is spouting off opinions based on almost no experience and a snippet of the facts about the US history course and its revision. Its ironic, considering the author entitles his article “Facts are Stubborn Things” that we are all talking in generalities based mostly on ignorance. I would encourage all of you to actually attend one of the APUSH workshops for how to each this course and see how fact based it actually is. The

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