Publication Date

June 15, 2018

AHA Topic

K–12 Education


  • World

In late May, College Board decided to completely reshape its AP World History (APWH) course. Announced with little fanfare, the proposed revisions halve the historical content, eliminating everything prior to 1450 CE (formerly Periods 1-3) while leaving Periods 4-6 intact. These earlier periods are relegated to a pre-AP World History and Geography course. Since this expensive pre-AP course will not be tested, students cannot receive college credit for it, and even those on the Test Development Committee acknowledge it is unlikely to be popular. In a single stroke, one of the most popular and fastest-growing AP courses was transformed from a sweeping survey of the history of humankind to a narrowly focused examination of the period from 1450 CE to the present. No more early human migrations and the development of agriculture; no more riverine societies; no more Persia, Greece, and Rome; no more pre-Columbian societies; no more Silk Roads and the Black Death. Each year, roughly 300,000 students will be affected by this change. 

Eliminating pre-1450 history from the AP World History course means that students will not be introduced to important historical developments and figures, such as Mansa Musa, a 14th century ruler of the Mali Empire. Wikimedia Commons/Abraham Cresques of Mallorca

The reaction from students, teachers, and academics (including the AHA) has been extraordinary. By early June a student-led petition asking College Board to drop the revisions had over 6,000 signatures. At a recent open forum on the changes in Salt Lake City, numerous APWH teachers spoke in opposition to the changes, including Karol Giblin, who argued, “To begin this course at 1450 is to begin teaching the majority of the population’s history in reflection of the West.” All former leaders of the APWH course and exam team signed onto a frank letter expressing their “dismay” at the redesign, which they dubbed “another generation’s Western Civ.” Someuniversities have already begun discussing changes to their APWH credit policies. It is rare (but not unheard of) for APWH to be the subject of such passionate debate. Now its opponents have a hashtag (#SaveAPWorld), a website, and avarietyofarticlesexploringthechanges in the press. College Board VP Trevor Packer, despite indicating the decision is not yet final, has offered no substantial concessions.

So why have these proposed revisions triggered such an overwhelming response? There are a variety of reasons, both practical and philosophical. First, this is the third revision to APWH in the past five years. For teachers, this means designing a half-year of new lesson plans, which requires considerable unpaid labor beyond normal hours. Second, the decision to make these changes began only five months ago. Whatever College Board executives say, there has been minimal consultation with those who will be delivering this new course. And third, College Board has insisted that student performance in the earlier part of the course lags in comparison to the more recent periods. Sadly they have not provided the requisite data and accompanying methodology to prove this point, something vitally important due to the obvious counterpoint that students might struggle with the content because it is from the early part of the school year and a more remote time in human history.

But philosophically, the revisions strike at the heart of what made APWH uniquely inclusive. APWH asserts that “humankind as a whole has a history,” writes Ross E. Dunn, professor emeritus at San Diego State University. It highlights interconnections among peoples that cut across vast swathes of space and time. The current curriculum, which encompasses the past 10,000 years across the entirety of the globe, is strikingly ambitious, and valid complaints have been raised about the feasibility of such a broad survey. Teaching APWH is not easy.

But it is precisely because it forces teachers and students outside of their comfort zones that APWH allows them to encounter new peoples, places, and societies. It also confronts teachers and students with big narratives that require long-term historical analysis, like climate change, nationalism, the historical construction of race, and global inequality. Slashing the exam leaves students ill-prepared to contextualize the more recent past and face the deep-rooted crises of today. The longue durée of APWH is not a problem to be solved, but its greatest strength.

High school world history is no stranger to debates on periodization. But the proposed revisions use periodization as a weapon to undermine this message of inclusivity and long-termism. By focusing the course on the period defined by the rise of the West, the “humanocentric” approach of the original course designers will be replaced by a straightforward narrative of European progress. The West acts. The rest respond. Many of the students frustrated by the proposed revisions find APWH fascinating precisely because it embraces the dazzling array of societies generally ignored in Western civilizations courses—the Mayans, the Mongols, and the Malians serve as sources of inspiration for a new generation of Americans. Regardless of your origins, APWH teaches that you had ancestors of whom you could be proud. Sadly, the revisions will bring much of this to an end, with particularly dramatic impacts for students of color. As Amanda doAmaral, a former APWH teacher, puts it, “their histories don’t start at slavery, their histories don’t start at colonization.” But in the proposed new APWH curriculum, this is precisely what they will be taught.

Frantz Fanon argued that the colonized had their early history “devalued” as a way to create dependency and hopelessness. “It was with the greatest delight,” however, he wrote, “that they discovered that there was nothing to be ashamed of in the past, but rather dignity, glory, and solemnity.” APWH, as it stands, is a beautiful course, one that enables all Americans to encounter dignity, glory, and solemnity in their past. Its meteoric growth is testament to the fact that it is also a course that speaks to today’s students, millions of whom have been inspired by its message. To sacrifice this would be a tragic mistake.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

Dave Eaton is an associate professor of African and world history at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. He has been an AP World History reader for six years and can be reached on Twitter @dave_the_prof. Matt Drwenski is a former AP World History teacher and current graduate student in history at the University of Pittsburgh. He has been an AP World History reader for seven years and can be reached on Twitter @drwenski. Dave and Matt co-host “On Top of the World: A World History Podcast,” a show about teaching and researching world history. They are also involved in the #SaveAPWorld movement. People can contact the show via Twitter @podhistory.

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