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Shrinking AP World History denies students context


Across the United States, AP World History teachers and students are rallying against proposed changes they contend narrow the scope of the course to the period beginning with European conquests.

The College Board, which owns the AP program, announced the AP World History exam will assess content only from 1450 through the present. That will likely lead teachers to compress the material they cover to mirror the exam focus since students only earn college credit if they do well on the test.

In explanation, the College Board said: 

The current AP World History course and exam cover 10,000 years of history across all seven continents. No other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year. AP World History teachers have told us over the years that the scope of content is simply too broad, and that they often need to sacrifice depth to cover it all in a single year.

Matthew W. Quinn teaches AP World History, among other things, in the metro Atlanta area. He explains why the change alarms him and many other teachers.

By Matthew W. Quinn 

In May, the College Board emailed Advanced Placement World History teachers announcing that beginning in the 2019-20 school year, the AP World exam would only assess content after 1450 AD (or 1450 CE if you prefer) with the exception of major religions. 

On the surface this makes sense. The existing AP curriculum covers cavemen to the Arab Spring, a truly vast amount of content. I joke with my students that AP World is a mile wide and an inch deep. 

However, many AP World History teachers (and students too) have pushed back to the point it's been covered by CNN, the New York Times, and Time. A student has created a Change.org petition that has more than 11,000 signatures. A video showing an AP World teacher confronting College Board Senior Vice President of AP and Instruction Trevor Packer has even gone viral on Twitter. I'm proud to be part of the movement to preserve as much of the AP World History curriculum as possible. 

Here's why. 

The College Board has stated teachers can still teach content from before 1450, but if teachers spend too much time on it, the kids aren't learning material they're going to be tested on and that's doing them a disservice. Teachers will realistically stop teaching this, or at least strongly de-emphasize it. 

This is a problem for two reasons. 

The first is context. Columbus did sail the ocean blue in 1492, but he didn't sail for the sake of sailing. He wanted to sail west to Asia to plug Spain into the rich Indian Ocean trade routes Portugal was sailing east to join. The goal was to avoid the Silk Road completely, since its terminals were now all under Muslim control and their trade with Europe was monopolized by Venetians and Genoese. He sailed aboard caravels, ships using European square sails and Asian lateen sails, guided by compasses originating in China and astrolabes invented by Muslims to find the direction of Mecca. Columbus's Portuguese contemporaries used their superior artillery to take control over much of the Indian Ocean trading network; gunpowder was invented in China and brought to Europe by the Mongols. The Mongols, meanwhile, created the largest land empire in history, establishing a trans-continental free trade zone that unfortunately helped spread the Black Death. Context is also important for the religious content that will still be tested on. 

You can't have Judaism without Egypt and Mesopotamia, you can't have Christianity without Greece and Rome, and you can't have Buddhism without Ashoka and the Mauryan Empire. And Islam was a civilization as well as a faith--entire fields of mathematics were invented in the Muslim caliphates, which also preserved learning lost to Europe after the fall of Rome.

Another problem is it risks making the class too Eurocentric, even though only 20 percent of exam questions are supposed to be about Europe. For most of history, Europe was a poor backwater of Asia. While Europe languished after the fall of Rome, the centers of global civilization were the Islamic world, India, and China. 1450 is when the balance of global power began shifting toward Europe, a shift that was by no means inevitable.

For example, the Portuguese could move into the Indian Ocean because the Chinese Ming Dynasty had recalled the admiral Zheng He and his "treasure ships," each of which was three times the size of the NinaPinta, and Santa Maria. Meanwhile, had the Muslim Ottoman Empire followed up on its 1480 landing in Otranto and conquered Italy, Michelangelo might have served Suleiman the Magnificent instead of the Medici family. 

One area where a post-1450 course risks causing problems is African history. The Atlantic ran an article discussing how many African-American families are home-schooling their children because they're tired of black history that's basically slavery and MLK. Beginning in 1450 implies to students black history begins with the slave trade, not with the Bantu skipping bronze to go straight from stone to iron. Or the Malian emperor Mansa Musa who founded Muslim universities in West Africa, caused hyperinflation in Egypt on his way to Mecca due to his sheer generosity, and may have been the wealthiest man who ever lived.

Beginning the class in 1450 risks making African history slavery, colonialism, and decolonization. I teach largely African-American students and I would rather begin their history with positive things like technological advancement and civilizational achievements that go often unmentioned rather than slavery-slavery-slavery. 

However, instead of merely complaining, I emailed Mr. Packer suggesting rather than de facto cutting everything before 1450, the College Board could revive the old "Foundations" unit. That unit originally covered everything to 600 AD for 20 percent of the exam, but it could now be extended to 1450 for 20-30 percent. This will allow teachers to provide the necessary background for the material the College Board would like to emphasize while also freeing up time for skills practice and writing. 

If you'd like to learn more about the effort to keep AP World History world history and not AP Euro Plus, visit the Save AP World History website and find out how you can support our cause. College Board will issue its final decision in July, so time is of the essence.

 


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.