RABBLE-ROUSING is not a term often used to describe historians. But teachers of Advanced Placement (AP) World History—a course taken by clever high-school pupils to bank college credit and impress universities—have organised themselves into an uprising of sorts. It was prompted by an announcement by the College Board, the non-profit organisation that administers the AP programme, that it was revising the world history course so that it only assessed knowledge of world events after the year 1450. Currently, the course examines human history from 10,000 BC to the present day.

At a recent meeting, high-school history teachers challenged Trevor Packer, the College Board’s senior vice president for AP, over that decision. One aim of the course should be “showing our black and brown and native students that their histories matter—that their histories don’t start at slavery,” said Amanda DoAmaral, who taught the course in Oakland, California. With the switch, “you’re just another person in authority telling my students that their histories don’t matter.” That suggestion offended Mr Packer. “How dare you claim that I do not care about that?” he said.

It is just not a few teachers that are upset. Students have organised a petition with 8,000 signatures and protest tweets. In a letter, the founders of the course wrote that they “are dismayed” at the decision to start the course in 1450, which “will steer teachers into a Eurocentric narrative”. They said they might lobby colleges to stop offering credit for the course.

Discussions about teaching history often arouse fury. Arguably, American pupils already receive an incomplete history—one that portrays race relations as an inexorable move toward justice, concentrates too heavily on the triumph of the Civil Rights Era and avoids focusing on the setbacks along the way. Pupils often learn more about the potted histories of Pocahontas and Sacagawea than they do about the Trail of Tears, for example. For decades, instruction of world history faced a similar conundrum, operating more as a class on Western civilisations or European politics. Starting the AP course in 1450 risks a return to that. It would skip over, among other things, early American civilisations, the golden age of Islam, and the rise of the Mongols.

Teachers also complain that the new course would be less welcoming to minority students. Under the new curriculum, black students might never learn about Mansa Musa (pictured), the sultan of Mali who was among the richest men in history, instead beginning their course with the transatlantic slave trade. Ms DoAmaral says students should learn about heroes “who were known for their achievements” as well as those who battle oppressors, and athletes. She notes that the inspiration her students drew from “Black Panther”—a blockbuster film set in the fictional and fabulously wealthy country of Wakanda—can also be unearthed by studying Mansa Musa. 

The College Board has cited several reasons for the change. The course is too broad, it says: surveys suggest that teachers felt 10,000 years of human history was simply too much for them to cover in a single year. Pupils were performing poorly in the end-of-year exams. And it argues that colleges tend to teach world history in several courses instead of a single, semester-long survey. 

The board proposes to lighten the load by splitting the course in half. While only the second half would be tested, the first half would be converted into a newly launched “pre-AP” course, for which the College Board would charge schools. For schools with more than 1,500 students, the cost for the new course would be $6,500. Sceptical teachers have suggested that the board is doing this to maximise revenues. The board disputes this. “Financial considerations played zero role in these changes, nor will the College Board benefit financially from them,” it said in a statement. For many protesting teachers, the problem is not so much splitting the course, which is indeed broad, but its cut-off point. Many teachers want to start the course at 600CE, in time to cover the rise of Islam, China’s Ming dynasty and the Mongols.

The board has taken note of the complaints. Mr Packer said in a statement that the “dialogue has illuminated a next step” involving “a coherent inclusion of essential concepts from period 3 [from 600 to 1450]“. This vague suggestion seems unlikely to satisfy furious teachers.