Educational Value

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis argued that the reason Florida rejected the Advance Placement course in African American History is that it lacked “educational value.” It’s not that units one through three lacked educational value, but that unit four introduced such things as black queer theory and critical race theory, which, per DeSantis, violated Florida’s unconstitutional Stop WOKE law.

If changes were not made to the AP course, the course would not be allowed in Florida’s schools. The College Board subsequently changed the curriculum of a course that never before existed. A glittering party was held at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture to celebrate the introduction of the course. Mara Gay was there to enjoy the jazz and collard greens.

Board officials tried to assure the crowd that they had not bent to censorious political pressure from the country’s increasingly brazen right wing. “If this were true, it would be a terrible stain on this country and on the College Board,” said the College Board’s C.E.O., David Coleman.

But in fact, when the College Board unveiled the final curriculum for the AP course the day before, it turned out that the board had removed from the core material a handful of vital Black thinkers and some important subject matter. They downgraded the study of Black Lives Matter, of reparations, of queer life and of incarceration. They removed prominent writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and bell hooks, who have helped so many people understand the relationship between race, class and feminism.

Had a course on black history not included queer theory or reparations, would anyone have protested its absence? Would anyone argue that such theories were history at all, as history is generally thought to relate to things that happened, facts of the past, that were left out of other retellings of history so that one could make it through AP history without ever learning about the 1921 Tulsa Massacre?

The College Board, though a nonprofit, is a fixture in the country’s education infrastructure. Taking its courses and succeeding on its exams has long been a way for savvy high school students to make themselves more attractive to the most selective colleges and, upon acceptance, win college credit.

The inclusion of Black history into this enterprise is a meaningful act.

It would be fair to say that public school education in black history was, ahem, lacking. It wasn’t that slavery was left out of the curriculum, but there was far more than slavery to be told, and it was not. There are plausible reasons why it couldn’t be fit into a history curriculum that barely taught the standard American history, but the curriculum had more than enough pseudo-patriotic fluff in there to make room for unpleasant facts about our national shame.

The Black scholars who pioneered the teaching of Black history long before it was popular to do so understand this. “We have to tell the truth,” one of those scholars, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, said Thursday evening. “The truth is we helped to build this country.”

Those opposed to the re-centering of Black history at the heart of the nation’s story instead of its periphery understand it, too, which is why they have mobilized against it.

Is there any doubt, even by the most ardent DeSantis supporter, that black people helped build this country? Indeed, “helped” is an inadequate descriptor, as black people were critical to the building of this nation, both physically and intellectually. But does the telling of that truth mean the same thing as its “re-centering” as the “heart of the nation’s story”? That black history matters doesn’t make the 1619 Project any more historically accurate. Black history is undoubtedly a critical part of this nation’s history. It does not supplant this nation’s history. Nor does it need to in order to matter.

The College Board could have sent a powerful message by standing with these Americans. Instead, its gestures at accommodation threw them under the bus, right along with bell hooks. A basic reading of the history board officials say they champion would make it clear that such accommodation will satisfy no one.

The question now is whether the majority of Americans in the middle, and at institutions like the College Board, are able to see the backlash clearly, not as some kind of culture war sideshow, but as the very lifeblood of the anti-democratic, sometimes violent political movement gaining currency in the United States.

Gay sees the revamped AP course as a capitulation to DeSantis by the College Board, a collapse of virtue and failure of academic integrity. Of course, they could have left the course as it was and if Florida chose to prohibit it from its curriculum, then Florida students would be denied whatever it contributed, even though black history was already a part of the public school history curriculum. And if Florida students and parents disapproved, if Florida teachers and principals were angry about this challenge to their academic freedom, they had the political means to let others know and elect a new state government that better reflected their values.

The problem is that looking directly at this history is a prospect that terrifies many white Americans. Viewing the exhibits at the National Museum of African American History and Culture — which include the instruments played by enslaved people and shackles made for a small child — it’s not hard to understand why. But the way forward is to confront this history, not bend it to our will, or whitewash it, or wish it away.

But was the removal of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic essay on reparations history or advocacy? Gay points at the shackles made for a small child, but that’s not what was excluded. In her op-ed, she mentions “transgender” students three times. Was this just to add a gratuitous smack at DeSantis’ positions about Drag story time or is there some connection between black people and transgender people that needs to be told?

The February 2022 draft highlighted a number of scholarly concepts that have been targeted by conservative activists. Those include intersectionality, the idea first laid out by the prominent legal scholar Kimberlé W. Crenshaw that race, class, gender, sexuality and other identities overlap and shape individuals’ experiences of the world; womanism, a movement centered around recognizing the Black, female experience; and queer studies.

Many of those terms have been removed.

Will the course be less about black history without them?

10 thoughts on “Educational Value

  1. Paleo

    Black queer theory and critical race theory are not part of history and don’t belong in a history class. They aren’t really actual things – they are opinions that a fairly limited number of people even accept.

    “Looking directly at this history is a prospect that terrifies many white Americans” is nutty. It’s a delusion she has. Virtually every white American is aware that all that stuff happened, and the huge majority don’t like that it was done and reject it as anything that should ever be repeated. I handled the exhibit at Auschwitz with all the shoes ok so I think I can handle pretty much anything this museum could show me.

    And yes, blacks made significant significant contributions to America throughout our history and that should be taught, as should the periods when the country didn’t live up to its ideals (blacks were not the only group affected by that habit). But you can teach that stuff without detouring into extremist, divisive distracting bullshit like CRT.

  2. phv3773

    The College Board has two constituent groups to keep happy: the high school teachers who teach the course, and the colleges and universities which give college course credit to the students. So they have stay somewhat close to consensus views of what belongs in the syllabus. The College Board is not in the business of popularizing new ideas about history which were made up last week and are likely to be replaced by even newer ideas next week.

    1. LY

      Correction, the College Board *SHOULD NOT* be not in the business of popularizing new ideas about history which were made up last week and are likely to be replaced by even newer ideas next week, but apparently they are.

  3. orthodoc

    The College Board cannot of course control what teachers teach; it can only determine what will be on its examination. A teacher who chooses to teach Ta-Nehisi Coates on reparations or Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality may do so. But the students will know it won’t be on the test–so good luck with that. In a roundabout way, then, those clamoring to keep the AP course intact are, for the first time, suggesting that tests and grades may be more than instruments of patriarchal, white-supremacist oppression.

  4. Elpey P.

    This very controversery is highlighting that CRT and queer theory have become elements of Black history, at least in the more recent past. Similar to how Christian fundamentalism and the Moral Majority is part of American history. There’s a difference between acknowledging identity politics movements in our history and teaching from their perspective. Or at least there should be.

    None of these people feigning anti-authoritarianism would mind the state limiting instruction on conversion therapy or the tenets of white supremacy in the classroom…oh, except they’ve now deconstructed the language to the point that they are now fighting to teach a new and improved version of those very things.

  5. Bryan Burroughs

    Its amazing just how quickly they pivoted from “nobody’s trying to teach CRT in public schools” to “how dare these shitlords not let us teach CRT in public schools!”

  6. KP

    Wait, what? ‘Black history’?? Isn’t that racist to start with, separating blacks and whites out for different treatment.. I thought the civilised world gave that up after South Africa dismantled apartheid, but it seems not. They should be teaching American history and that covers it all.

    “the very lifeblood of the anti-democratic..” Did I miss a word or two that said they were taking the vote off some people? Its a democracy if the Govt is voted in by the people, stolen election of not, and I haven’t seen any reports of people being disenfranchised.

    Sometimes I wish for the Middle Ages, when the peasants were more worried about getting enough food to eat than their opinions on queer matters.

  7. B. McLeod

    I haven’t reviewed the substance of everything that was struck here, but I did see the Coates screed. It wasn’t particularly focused on truth or history, but on interpreting anecdotal accounts of things like tax sales and contracts for deed as racist attacks on black people. It was clear from the writing that Coates did not understand what he was talking about, but basically just presenting a distorted propagandist rant. If it has a place in school curriculum, it would be in whatever classes (if any) teach critical thinking and recognition of propagandist pitches. If everything else that was removed had similar merit, the course changes were a positive development.

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