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Limitations on Exploration and Thinking Freely

"I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering where it will go. . . "

How does an old Beatles' song relate to AP U.S. History? My mind wandered to Paul McCartney's lyrics as I pondered the ideas of "enhancement" and "distraction." That led to a brief digression on what historians do, then to a distracting thought about the goals and expectations of a U.S. History course. Then, harkening back to the song, I mused that if fixing the hole stops a meandering mind, a little bit of rain is not such a bad thing.

Since 1956, students in AP U.S. History have answered multiple-choice questions that test "factual knowledge, breadth of preparation, and knowledge-based analytical skills" and essay questions that ask for comparisons across group, thematic, or chronological lines. We know that the majority of the multiple-choice questions focus on events between 1790 and 1980 and that the AP curriculum and exam provide basically the same experience, whenever and wherever students participate. Even with subtle differences in the perspectives of the AP readers, there is a consensus about the meaning of the numerical scores. A 5 may yield credit or advanced standing in college, surely a desirable goal for practical students. The standardization of the AP curriculum serves a reasonable goal—it helps students to learn and communicate a mass of information in a form that can be easily read and interpreted through the devices of scanning technology and well-trained AP readers.

But the AP U.S. History curriculum as it is presently constituted cannot convey the experience of historians as they examine and interpret evidence, make educated guesses, and take interpretive risks. The best moments for many historians happen when we become distracted by a revealing document or an example that just doesn't "fit" into an established pattern. We historians are at our most creative when we let history itself take our minds where they will go. The AP curriculum gives us little time to consider whether we would have published the Declaration of Independence on July 5, 1776; what we can learn about professionalism from midwife Martha Ballard; how Native Americans experienced Manifest Destiny; the personal experience of the 1950s blacklist; or the nature of military protest against the Vietnam War, among many other topics.

Perhaps the AP U.S. History curriculum, for all of the benefits it may bring to students who want to get their history experience "out of the way" before college, is not distracting enough to provide the satisfaction with which a wandering mind experiences history.