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The Dilemma of AP U.S. History

All survey courses pose a common dilemma: superficiality vs. complexity. If one's goal is to cover American history from colonial to the 21st century, there is little chance that the rich and vibrant hues will be visible, much less understood at a deeper level. If the principal goal is to introduce students to a breadth of topics, issues, anecdotes, and factoids, the AP survey serves that purpose. If one views history as an essential perspective on the present, then it is crucial to have a deeper understanding of context, content, and the complexity of topics. It's the breadth vs. depth dilemma.

There is no question that the AP syllabus ratchets up the expectations and standards in the curriculum. The test assumes a mastery of factual information (multiple-choice questions), analytical skills (free-response prompts), and the historian's craft of analyzing primary sources (DBQ prompt). These skills encourage development of critical thinking as information is filtered and evaluated, and a mastery of these could produce college credit and exemption from the college survey. One assumes that the student is motivated by these challenges, and that the teacher is well prepared for this "year of enlightenment." This indeed should produce a qualitative improvement in the high school curriculum as it provides students and teachers with a structured syllabus. Unfortunately, the test focuses more on the factual than the analytical and thematic.

The tyranny of the test drives a large portion of student and teacher motivation, and AP adds credibility to the transcript for college admissions. As one races through the syllabus in preparation for the early May test deadline, the conundrum for the history teacher returns. To what extent is the complexity of a topic, an issue, a personality examined? Has the imperative of coverage transcended understanding and appreciation of those "rich and vibrant hues"? There are constant decisions about thematic focus as well as what to eliminate or "to mention" (as opposed to seriously probing). There is little time for historiographical inquiry through monographs; however, historical themes can reveal the many layers of a topic or personality and provide that much-needed historical perspective on the present.

Research projects are also an essential part of the critical inquiry process of any history course. Rich volumes of primary resources are available at websites such as The Valley of the Shadow and the Slave Narratives project. Using such sources, the student not only probes deeply into a topic, but also gains an appreciation of the historical process as practiced by professional historians. More importantly, historical nuance becomes more evident in a critical analysis of primary documents. The complexity of history is revealed through the research, reading, and discussion of topics and eras on a deeper level.

It is possible to offer an AP U.S. History course that has a thematic focus, but the time constraints make it difficult to develop important themes. As with any introductory course, there are trade-offs as to what to include and what to exclude. If critical thinking, appreciation of nuance, and perspective on the present are worthy goals of our educational system, the AP program should encourage these skills as it designs its syllabus and tests. The historical perspective is vital to a robust and intelligent debate in our society. A challenging intellectual experience at the high school level is where that begins.