Last week, after months of right-wing criticism, half a million students took the Advanced Placement United States History, or APUSH, exam, which included an essay asking them to “explain the reasons why a new conservatism rose to prominence in the United States between 1960 and 1989.” It is either an amazing coincidence that this prompt appeared this year, amid the controversy over the APUSH created by the right, or conservatives just got trolled.
After the College Board announced changes to the 2014-15 APUSH, conservatives attacked the new test as anti-American. The Republican National Committee passed a resolution in October condemning the exam. Leading critics of the test, Larry S. Krieger and Jane Robbins, claimed it “inculcates a consistently negative view of American history by highlighting oppressors and exploiters while ignoring the dreamers and innovators who built our country.”
A Colorado school board proposed a review committee to ensure the APUSH course did not “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife, or disregard of the law,” which, delightfully, resulted in students walking out of school in protest, while the College Board cheered them on. Measures to eliminate, revise, or review the APUSH were proposed in Oklahoma, Texas, and Georgia. In the end, the test proceeded as scheduled in all school districts, complete with this question about the rise of conservatism, which tacitly asked how did we end up here?
The essay required students to consider six excerpts from, in order, Barry Goldwater’s “The Conscience of a Conservative,’’ Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom,’’ a letter written by Nelson Rockefeller, a Jerry Falwell speech, the 1980 Republican Party platform, and a speech by Teddi Holt, a member of Georgia Stop ERA. Save the absence of St. Reagan or William F. Buckley, it’s a who’s who of the conservative all-stars of yesteryear.
The subject is perfectly apt for the exam, since conservatism is now a popular, even trendy, topic for academics. Works like Mary Brennan’s “Turning Right in the Sixties’’ and Alan Brinkley’s “The Problem of American Conservatism” inspired a generation of scholars to study previously neglected figures like Leo Strauss and Friedrich Von Hayek and institutions like The National Review and the Rand Corporation. And yet, the timing is fishy. Ted Dickson, co-chair of the APUSH Development Committee, told me the question was set early in 2014 and “had more to do with wanting to . . . reinforce the importance of . . . history after 1960 . . . than with any political statement,” but, intentional or not, the essay question makes a statement.
I imagine that some might see the essay and its cast of conservative heroes as a bone thrown to the exam’s critics, but I suspect that the College Board wouldn’t mind if they choked on that bone. The real question is what 17-year-olds are to make of these documents. How will kids who have come of age in the era of Occupy, marriage equality, and “Black Lives Matter” understand Friedman’s free market evangelism, Falwell’s jeremiads, or the Rockefeller Drug Laws? The question demands precisely what the College Board said it wanted all along: “The goal is to help students acquire a strong command of historical facts and then to be able to understand, formulate, and critique different interpretations of the past and of its meaning for today.”
In other words, conservatives, be careful what you wished for.
James Murphy is a freelance writer who writes about education and test prep.