Bryan Caplan explores the value of history — to his sons:
Today my homeschooled sons are taking the Advanced Placement United States History Exam. I took the exam when I was 17. They are 13. Given how often I deride the practical value of history in The Case Against Education, you could fairly ask, “What’s the point?” Signaling is the easy answer. Anyone can be homeschooled, but only a select minority can ace an A.P. test. Strong A.P. scores are especially impressive if you’re years younger than your competitors.
But that’s hardly the whole story. After all, we could have done other A.P.s instead. So why history? To be blunt: While I think history is a waste of time for 99% of people, I think my sons are in the other 1%. They aren’t just highly intelligent; they’re good students. More specifically:
1. Unlike almost everyone, my sons are interested in being social scientists. And while the historically ignorant certainly can succeed in social science, you can’t be a good social scientist without broad, deep historical knowledge. Can’t!
2. As you age, you lose your ability to master and retain large bodies of facts. The best way to durably learn history – like foreign language – is to learn it young. I acquired 90% of my historical knowledge between the ages of 10 and 20. So age 13 seems like an ideal time for this task.
3. Unlike almost everyone, my sons genuinely enjoy learning about history. (I was the same way). As I’ve argued elsewhere, this is the crucial ingredient that transforms otherwise useless learning into a merit good.
4. The APUSH is a fantastic exam. If a test can teach a person “how to think,” the APUSH is such a test. If you’ve got 195 minutes to spare, take it.
5. To be honest, I’m not convinced any test actually can teach anyone how to think. That’s why #4 says If. Nevertheless, I am convinced that people who will ultimately learn how to think can learn how to think sooner. How? By practicing intellectually demanding tasks. Since my sons are in the select category of people who will ultimately learn how to think, I have sped them toward their potential.
I was a bit surprised by his second and fourth points. I’ve certainly learned far more history on my own, as an adult, than I ever learned in school. And I didn’t realize the AP US History exam was especially good.
Michael Strong doesn’t think so highly of it:
Most AP US History preparatory materials, and often sample exams, propound a straightforward progressive narrative of American history: The robber barons, promoting an evil laissez-faire system, were happily overcome by the muckrakers and Teddy Roosevelt. The rise of progressive legislation saved Americans from suffering and misery. The Great Depression was caused, in part, by inequality. FDR’s activist government saved the US after Hoover’s attachment to laissez-faire almost destroyed us. Etc.
I see the AP US History program as the single greatest obstacle to economic literacy in the US. Many (most?) of our elite students take it in preparation for college admissions. It provides a powerful morality tale that is sanctioned as absolute truth by the College Board.
Later courses in economics, either at university or in summer programs such as those by IHS and FEE, may counteract some of the damage done. But I suspect more students take the US AP exam than take economics courses. Moreover, most economics courses come across as dry problem-solving rather than an inspiring moral narrative. Moreover, they rarely address economic history at all. The number of students who actually take a course in U.S. economic history, to address the many economic fallacies in the progressive narrative, is vanishingly small.
Add to this university history departments that mostly emphasize and elaborate on the progressive morality tale in US history. The result is that most college graduates continue to believe that laissez-faire was harmful to the working class, that heroic reformers improved conditions through legislation, the Great Depression was caused by inequality, etc.
Reform of the AP US History program, if it were possible, might arguably be the greatest Archimedian lever available to libertarians. Imagine a world in which instead of social signaling among intellectuals consisted not of “I’m more progressive than thou,” but rather “I don’t make idiotic mistakes regarding economic history or economics.”