In 2001, the College Board added a course to its offerings for high school. In addition to the AP European History and AP United States History courses that the program had traditionally provided, the new AP World History class would offer students an opportunity to earn college credit while learning a history that reached back millennia and wrapped around the globe.
The new course would begin in 10,000 B.C.E. and run through the current day. No more than 30 percent of course material would focus on the West. Students would learn about Hammurabi’s Code, the Zhou Dynasty, the life of Buddha, the Umayyad Caliphate and the Aztec Empire. For perhaps the first time, students of color could find their ancestors included in the curriculum—not only as counterpoints to the Europeans they encountered, but as the leaders and artists and architects of their own societies. Though implicit, the message of the course was nonetheless clear: History didn’t begin when Europeans began recording it. AP World History was an important step forward that teachers could take with their students.
Seventeen years later, we’re taking a big step back. Recently, the College Board announced its plans for a revised AP World History course to begin in the 2019-2020 school year. Among the announced changes: the lopping off of all history before 1450. They haven’t proposed a new title for the course, but we recommend calling the class what it is (or what it soon will be): European Colonial History.
The proposed changes to this course are bad for everyone, not least the College Board itself. AP classes play an important role in college preparation for countless students; last year more than a million students in public high schools took at least one AP exam. And in recent years, the program has made strides toward greater equity and access. It certainly sells itself as working to level the playing field: Recent stories on the College Board’s press page address racial and gender diversity in AP STEM courses, a narrowing rural accessibility gap and a story on rising college costs and falling aid. But the organization’s re-centering of Europe in its AP World History course works against these pushes toward justice.
In a nation in which many students trace their ancestry to a continent other than Europe, this revision returns us to a “West and the rest” model that should have been left in the early 20th century. Pushing against current historical scholarship, the College Board is increasing the likelihood that colleges and universities will stop awarding credit hours for AP World History. On Monday, all of the former leaders of the AP World History course and exam team sent a letter to the College Board’s Senior VP of Advanced Placement and Instruction saying just that. They wrote: “[T]hose among us who influence AP policy on our campuses will recommend that because of this step backward those campuses stop offering AP credit for this course, and we will share our reasons for doing so more widely with the academic community.”
In its explanation for the change, the College Board said that revisions to AP World History were made to answer the calls of teachers who “have told us over the years that the scope of content is simply too broad, and that they often need to sacrifice depth to cover it all in a single year.” As a former AP history teacher, I understand all too well the problem of trying to cover it all. But given the pushback already evident from teachers and experts in the field, it’s clear that this is not the right solution.
The College Board recommends that schools add another history course to their curriculum, Pre-AP World History and Geography, which would cover the material to be excluded from the revised AP World History course. However, since the organization would provide no test—no college credit—for this proposed addition, it’s unlikely the new class would have the same draw for students. And for many schools, adding another course (even without the $1500–$6500 price tag the College Board has attached) is simply not financially feasible.
The change isn’t just bad business. It’s bad pedagogy. History is the study of context; “Contextualization” is literally the first of four “AP History Reasoning Skills” the College Board expects students to display. But the year 1450 is an arbitrary starting point, unless the goal is to steer students toward a study of European colonialization. Certainly that is the direction the former course and exam team worries the new course will take. The proposed changes, they wrote, will almost certainly “steer teachers into a Eurocentric narrative.”
Students recognize the problems of these proposed changes. They’ve begun an online petition to encourage the College Board to rethink its revision, and they’ve joined their teachers on social media, contributing to the conversations around #saveapworld and #saveperiod3.
The good news is that it’s not too late to do so. After a tense meeting with teachers in Salt Lake City last week, Senior VP of Advanced Placement and Instruction Trevor Packer wrote that the College Board “will seek the input of the teachers and professors on the AP World History Development committee... and report back” by mid-July. Let’s hope they make the right choice.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.