Every year, hundreds of thousands of high school students take Advanced Placement history classes in pursuit of prestige and college credit. Although classroom teachers have some autonomy in these courses, the goal for students is to succeed on a standardized nationwide test developed, distributed, and evaluated by the College Board, a non-profit governing body. In May, the College Board announced a radical change to AP World History: Instead of covering 10,000 years of human history, the new course would begin at the cusp of the European colonial era, in 1450 C.E. They might as well have just said that world history didn't really begin until Christopher Columbus, Atlantic slavery, and the North American genocides.
Teachers and students were outraged. A video of a testy exchange between Trevor Packer, senior vice president of Advanced Placement at the College Board, and educators concerned about the changes, has been viewed over 10,000 times on YouTube—pretty remarkable numbers for what's basically a curricular Q&A. The College Board defended its decision by explaining in a statement that the "scope of content" in the original class was "simply too broad," requiring teachers "to sacrifice depth to cover it all in a single year." Still, recognizing the serious pushback, in mid-July the College Board released its new recommendation: Start the class at 1200 C.E. and create a second AP class covering the previous 9,200 years.
It's a weird solution that smacks of a public relations move. The College Board had touted the virtues of its slow, deliberative process in arriving at the new 1450 curriculum, then abruptly reversed course. Moreover, it still leaves the 9,000-years class subject to all the challenges of covering so many millennia—if anyone actually teaches it.
There's a better way, and the key is understanding that the College Board isn't entirely wrong. It's not possible to cover 10,000 years (or 9,200 years) in a single class, and no one should try to do so. But instead of yanking world history into a Eurocentric framework, or arbitrarily picking the weirdly irrelevant date of 1200, why not take this opportunity to do something better? Specifically, let's stop emphasizing the need to "cover" the past, meaning building courses around specific historical dates and events, and instead build a curriculum that centers the real work of history: asking questions, marshaling evidence, making arguments, and learning how to learn.
The College Board's statements defending the abridgment of the course really come down to a mistaken focus on the impossibility of progressing through 10,000 years of history without skipping over too many important events, people, or other kinds of developments. It's true. No one can cover everything. But here's a secret: There's no history class on any topic that covers everything important or interesting related to that topic....