According to the College Board, more than a third of the country’s public high-school students took at least one AP exam in 2013, a 14 percent increase from a decade prior. AP programs by definition aren’t designed to replicate high-school classes; on the contrary, the courses are supposed to promote college-level thinking and reward students who pass the exams with college credit. AP U.S. history, in particular, is designed to teach students to think like historians and scrutinize the past through critical reflection—skills integral to the first year of a college education, explained James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association.
It’s undeniable that a proper study of the country’s history is key to American citizenship. But therein lies the problem: What does "proper" mean? An AP U.S. history class, Grossman said, should force students to scrutinize the people they’re studying and the context in which certain events happened. What social, political, and economic structures were in place during that time? After all, placing some of the founding fathers—such as Jefferson—in their cultural context helps explain both their brilliance and the troubling parts of their personal choices much better than decontextualizing them would. And to disregard the imperfections of American history simply isn’t feasible: It’s hard to imagine a student unaware of segregation or racism by the time he or she enters an AP U.S.-history classroom—especially in light of recent high-profile news events such as Ferguson, which spotlight the country’s residual racial tensions. The assumption that American teenagers haven’t already heard some of the country’s historical complexities seems naïve. "Our past," Grossman wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, "is now more diverse than we once thought, whether we like it or not."
Americans want to be descendants of a noble people, explained David Blight, a U.S.-history professor and the director of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. Americans want to be the people who emancipated the slaves—not the people who enslaved them. "But history’s job isn’t to make people feel happy about themselves or their culture," he said. "That’s why we have religion, churches, and community organizations. That’s why we have rabbis and psychologists, not historians." Yes, teaching history is about telling a dramatic story—but it’s also about explaining and interpreting past events analytically. It’s impossible to teach about 9/11, Blight noted, without recounting the sequence of events that preceded that morning—the recurring acts of terrorism, the previous attack on the World Trade Center, and so on—as well as the prolonged aftermath in the Middle East, "especially the disastrous Iraq War." "How much do you talk about the perpetrators?" asked Blight, who specializes in public history and serves on several boards, including an advisory group for the 9/11 memorial and museum. "It’s a question we grappled with in advising the curators who built the museum."