Hey, Conservatives, You Won By Daniel Henninger


The College Board’s about-face on U.S. history is a significant political event.

In this summer of agitated discontent for American conservatives, we can report a victory for them, assuming that is still permitted.

Last year, the College Board, the nonprofit corporation that controls all the high-school Advanced Placement courses and exams, published new guidelines for the AP U.S. history test. They read like a left-wing dream. Obsession with identity, gender, class, crimes against the American Indian and the sins of capitalism suffused the proposed guidelines for teachers of AP American history.

As of a few weeks ago, that tilt in the guidelines has vanished. The College Board’s rewritten 2015 teaching guidelines are almost a model of political fair-mindedness. This isn’t just an about-face. It is an important political event.

The earlier guidelines characterized the discovery of America as mostly the story of Europeans bringing pestilence, destructive plants and cultural obliteration to American Indians. The new guidelines put it this way: “Mutual misunderstandings between Europeans and Native Americans often defined the early years of interaction and trade as each group sought to make sense of the other. Over time, Europeans and Native Americans adopted some useful aspects of each other’s culture.”

The previous, neo-Marxist guidelines said, “Students should be able to explain how various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history, with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities.” That has been removed. The revised guidelines have plenty about “identity” but nothing worth mounting a Super PAC to battle.

Also new: “The effort for American independence was energized by colonial leaders such as Benjamin Franklin, as well as by popular movements that included the political activism of laborers, artisans, and women.” The earlier version never suggested the existence of Franklin—or Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison or anyone resembling a Founding Father. Now they’re back. Even the Federalist Papers were fished out of the memory hole.

Most incredible of all, the private enterprise system is, as they say, reimagined as a force for good: “As the price of many goods decreased, workers’ real wages increased, providing new access to a variety of goods and services.” There’s an idea that has fallen out of favor the past six years.

The final sentence of my June 11 column on the previous guidelines, “Bye, Bye, American History,” said: “The College Board promises that what it produces next month will be ‘balanced.’ We await the event.”

The College Board delivered on its promise. The new guidelines, which convey an understanding of American history to thousands of high-school students, are about as balanced as one could hope for. The framework itself, on the College Board website inside the AP tab, is worth a look.

What happened?

To Bernie-Sanders progressives, what happened was a sellout. For ThinkProgress.org, “College Board Caves to Conservative Pressure.”

What really happened was the resurrection of an American idea the left wants to extinguish—federalism. Some states began to push back. Legislative opposition to the guidelines formed in Georgia, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Nebraska, Tennessee, Colorado and Texas.

Stanley Kurtz, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has argued that the College Board was concerned that its lucrative nationwide testing franchise would be at risk if states began to replace it with their own courses. I think he’s right.

What remains, however, is that the College Board, after somehow thinking it could produce a politically tendentious document that would have established “identity politics” as the official narrative of U.S. history, ended up with a set of guidelines that deftly straddles the political center.

This is a significant event. It marks an important turn in the American culture wars that exploded at the Republican convention in 1992 with the religious right, a movement that faded but whose sense of political alienation has remained alive, whether in the original tea-party groups or today with voters adopting the improbable Donald Trump.

What these disaffected people have held in common is the sense that their animating beliefs in—if one may say so—God and country were not merely being opposed but were being rolled completely off the table by institutions—“Washington,” the courts, a College Board—over which they had no apparent control.

They were not wrong.

The original AP U.S. history guidelines were a case study in the left’s irrepressible impulse, here or elsewhere, to always go too far. The left always said it just wanted “to be heard.” They were, but it was never enough. The goal was to make the American center-right simply shut up. Now, with campus trigger-warnings and microagression manias, the left is telling liberals to shut up too. They rule, and you do. Ask the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Guess what? In a country of 319 million “diverse” people, that is really a hard political goal to lock down, no matter how many institutions are captured.

Is the country polarized? How could it not be? Is there a solution? Take a look at how the AP U.S. history mess was handled. Someone rewrote those guidelines into a reasonable political accommodation. It is not impossible.

Write to henninger@wsj.com.

Write to Daniel Henninger at henninger@wsj.com

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