heterodox: the blog
I Got Cut from the AP African American Studies Curriculum
Academic analysis of Black history is being cut from the College Board’s AP African American Studies curriculum after pressure from Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Fabio Rojas, an author whose scholarship was cut from the curriculum, explains how this entire incident underscores the need for freedom of speech, academic freedom, and pluralism.
The College Board recently released its curriculum for the Advanced Placement African American studies course. The goal of the course is to provide students with a set of ideas and readings that will give them the knowledge comparable to a freshman-level college course in African American studies. After spending a year in a high school–level course that uses this study guide, students can take a test and complete a project that will give them college course credit.
The curriculum promptly generated outrage after leaks indicated that some authors and topics had been reduced or entirely cut from the curriculum as a response to pressure from Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Via Twitter, Professor Noliwe Rooks of Brown University released a list of authors who had been excised, and I was on that list. Her post went viral, attracting more than 2.5 million views.
There is a long-standing pattern where Republican or conservative critics will target African American studies courses or scholars and generate an outrage episode. In the 1970s Harvard professor Martin Kilson was one such critic. In the multicultural wars of the 1990s, conservative writers such as Dinesh D’Souza, Charles J. Sykes, and John Derbyshire all penned books and articles critiquing African American studies. In 2012 Naomi Schaefer Riley published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that casually suggested that the field should be eliminated due to its poor scholarly quality. Now, we can add Governor DeSantis to the list of African American studies critics.
The original curriculum has not been released by the College Board, nor has it been leaked as of this time. Thus, we can’t tell exactly what was in this “lost curriculum” or why my book, From Black Power to Black Studies, might have been cut.
As explained in a previous Heterodox Academy blog, my book, now excised from the curriculum, demonstrates how Black nationalists aspired to a version of Black studies that marked a radical departure from the academic mainstream. However, they were unable to actually succeed at this project. Instead, they ultimately ended up building a discipline that rested on a foundation of interdisciplinary scholarship drawn from the traditional social sciences and humanities. It’s a sociological analysis of how a social movement was institutionalized (and some of the trade-offs entailed thereby).
Explaining their decision to cut certain works, the College Board released statements indicating that they did not in any way bow to political pressure. Some material was cut because it was too complicated for most high school juniors or seniors. Certain terms, they argued, had become so polarized that using these specific words would have rendered students unable to grasp the key ideas, so now they try to teach the core concepts without using those polarizing terms. Some sources, the College Board says, were cut because they were secondary material, and it decided it was best to have students engage nearly exclusively with primary sources. In short, it is their contention that the changes were made for purely pedagogical reasons, without any regard to politics.
Yet, other sources highlight that there was a protracted (and continuing) campaign by the Florida Department of Education to modify the curriculum in the service of a political agenda. They assert that the College Board seems to have been unduly influenced by these campaigns and have urged them to revisit the content and consider leadership changes. Meanwhile, subsequent reporting and leaked communications have challenged the College Board’s claims about their contact with Florida policy makers, suggesting that the Board had been in closer contact, and in earlier contact, with the DeSantis administration than their public statements have acknowledged to date.
Whatever the truth of these competing claims, a few lessons can be drawn from this incident. First, Black studies has been, and will continue to be, a focal point for conservative cultural politics. Governor DeSantis is a very effective political campaigner, and he has realized that arguments about school curricula resonate among voters and the media. The AP course will recede from view, but pundits and politicians will likely focus on another Black education issue in the future. Black studies’ defenders must understand that presenting this material to the public will almost certainly trigger backlash and controversy.
Second, this controversy demonstrates the need for including many of the excluded materials because African American studies is a discipline whose legitimacy has always been challenged. The field was born amid protest and continues to attract controversy today. Many of the excluded authors addressed the need for African American studies from their own point of view. I suspect that my book, From Black Power to Black Studies, was redacted because it discussed how the field has deep roots in the Black Power movement of the late 1960s. The text would probably be challenging and instructive for many who support dramatic social change, detailing just how complicated it is to translate these goals from street protests and radical tracts into actually existing institutions. It’s a shame, and somewhat ironic, that it was cut. But students are also being deprived of many other important perspectives as a result of the College Board’s curriculum changes.
Third, this entire incident underscores the need for freedom of speech, academic freedom, and pluralism. There is no single way to teach African American studies. Instead of excluding people or ideas, educators should instead invite discussion and critique. For example, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was allegedly cut from the curriculum, probably because many conservatives believe it to be an extremely radical movement. The correct response is to explain the origins and intentions of the movement and then offer good-faith critiques or alternative views. For example, Adam Szetela, a doctoral student in English at Cornell University, has offered a criticism of BLM in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies, arguing that it is hard for the movement to gain support beyond the social justice left. We can readily formulate a curriculum where topics like Black Lives Matter are presented as points of discussion and debate.
It is quite unfortunate that the academic analysis of Black culture and history should become the focus of so much rancor. Rather than adopt a partisan position, we should use this as an opportunity to deepen the public’s appreciation of the Black experience and promote the virtues of free speech and academic debate.
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