National News

AP World History Tries to Trim Thousands of Years, and Educators Revolt

Posted June 21, 2018 2:11 p.m. EDT

No Roman Empire. No Mongols. No ancient Chinese dynasties or early Indian states. And you can forget about the Incan and Aztec empires before the Europeans dropped their anchors.

That is a sample of what would be missing from the Advanced Placement World History exam if the College Board, the nonprofit organization that owns the AP program, follows through with a plan to cut its 10,000-year sweep of material in half and start at the year 1450.

The board’s announcement last month that it would drastically revisethe test prompted a swift backlash from history educators across the country, many who assert that the move would turn the course into a meditation on the rise of the West.

“They couldn’t have picked a more Eurocentric date,” said Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, president of the World History Association and a former developer of the exam and course.

“If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade,” she said. “The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things. It’s not a start date that encourages looking at the agency and creativity of people outside Europe.”

The College Board is reconsidering its decision in response to the vocal opposition, Trevor Packer, the head of the organization’s AP program, said in an interview. The board is now weighing moving the start date to “several centuries earlier” than 1450, he said. The final decision will be announced in July.

“I have a lot of trust and respect for what they do,” Packer said of the history teachers. “And so when I heard these concerns expressed so powerfully, I felt like we needed to pay attention.”

The course, which gave nearly 300,000 high school students across the country the chance to gain college history credit last year, typically covers global trends from the hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic era to political and social change in the 20th century.

The College Board’s original plan would have split AP World History into a two-year course, with the first year covering material from before 600 B.C. to 1450. Packer said the plan, set to take effect starting in the 2019-20 school year, was based on feedback from teachers that they struggled to cover 100 centuries of material in one year.

But the earlier material would not be part of the AP exam, which is held each spring. Most schools would most likely decide against overhauling their entire history program to include two years of world history, instead opting to teach only the more recent material since it would be covered on the test, said Laura J. Mitchell, a former chairwoman of the committee that develops the exam and a history professor at the University of California Irvine.

Mitchell said she was concerned that the course would lose its intended point, which is to be a broad survey of historical trends. She said she was skeptical that shifting the start date back a few centuries would solve the problem.

“World history asks you to think in long time frames and large geographic spaces,” she said. “Students don’t get those kinds of intellectual challenges in any other course.”

Other world history teachers fear their diverse groups of students will lose the chance to learn about Asia, Africa and the Americas before European dominance. Amanda DoAmaral, who taught AP World History for five years in Oakland, California, said she valued the way the curriculum allowed students of color to learn about eras in which empires other than those in the West were in power.

DoAmaral said her high school students were stunned to learn that a 14th-century emperor from Africa was still considered to be one of the richest people in history. “If they imagine the top 10 richest men to ever live, they’re imagining all white men,” she said. But they were excited to learn about Mansa Musa, who ruled the Mali Empire starting in 1312 and was awash in wealth while his empire was expanding across West Africa.

Packer dismissed the idea that teaching world history from 1450 to the present would necessarily impart a Eurocentric perspective. But he said he agreed with the argument that key concepts in the pre-1450 period provide a crucial foundation for learning more recent history.

Most teachers and historians involved in the debate admit that the sheer breadth of the curriculum presents a challenge for teachers. For some, that enduring problem makes them willing to embrace compromise.

“To me it makes sense to combine a legitimate concern for feasibility and student mastery with the clear need to begin the course earlier than 1450,” said Peter N. Stearns, who led the committee that developed the AP World History exam in the late 1990s.

Stearns, who is a history professor at George Mason University, signed onto a letter to Packer this month warning that the signatories would recommend their colleges and universities revoke credit for the course if the exam material started in 1450.

For other world history purists, the only correct syllabus is the current one. All 10,000 years of it.

“Every course has too much content,” said Wiesner-Hanks, who is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “There’s so much content in biology, but they’re not saying, ‘There are so many bones in the human body, I think we’ll just cover the waist up!'”