A Few Reflections on the AP African American History Clash

Governor DeSantis was right to criticize the course for commingling history and advocacy.
Photo of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

The final framework of the new Advanced Placement African American Studies course, recently announced by the College Board, was widely viewed as a victory for the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. Back in early January, the Florida Department of Education informed the College Board that the pilot framework ran afoul of Florida law banning critical race theory and indoctrination in public schools—due primarily to its final, more contemporary section (“Movements and Debates”) which featured one-sided takes on topics like reparations, Black Lives Matter, and intersectionality.

Critics accused DeSantis of trying to “block” public schools from teaching African American history and seeking to “erase” the experiences of black Americans. For his part, DeSantis noted that Florida law actually mandates that African American history be taught in schools and said  the issue wasn’t a matter of history but of ideological agendas: “When you look to see they have stuff about intersectionality, abolishing prisons—that’s a political agenda.”

In the revised framework released by the College Board after weeks of controversy, the stuff that troubled DeSantis is, quite sensibly, almost wholly gone. The framework properly downsizes most of the contemporary agendas, ditches the agitprop in favor of more emphasis on primary sources, and focuses more intently on under-explored history (the geography of African empires, the role of faith in the African American community, the art of the Harlem Renaissance, and so forth). This seems a good and healthy resolution.

Looking beyond the specific resolution, though, a few reflections seem in order.

History triumphed over academic fashion. As a long-ago social studies teacher, I’d argue that the College Board ended up in a fruitful, intellectually serious place. It trimmed ideologically flavored units on things like “Intersectionality and Activism,” “‘Post-Racial’ Racism and Colorblindness,” and “The Reparations Movement,” while adding new coverage of “Black Political Gains,” “Demographic and Religious Diversity in the Black Community,” and “Black Achievement in Science, Medicine and Technology.” The final framework focuses on providing a rich look at the varied dimensions of the African American experience—social, economic, religious, political, geographical, artistic, and such—while doing in a way that seeks to respect the distinction between history and the ideological agendas that currently predominate in the academy. This is a distinction that can too easily get lost (and too often has been). But, especially in K-12 schooling, grounding students in the stuff of the past—and then letting them make the arguments—is a time-tested way to create dynamic, intellectually empowering environments.

What the heck was the College Board doing? The College Board came out in a sensible place, but I was struck throughout the clash that it seemed intent on replicating the mistakes of the AP U.S. History fight from a decade ago. Back then, readers may recall, the draft framework drew fire for being laughably political and agenda-driven. The most emblematic example may have been the effusive treatment of FDR and LBJ, on the one hand, and the dismissive jabs at Ronald Reagan (the most significant Republican president of the 20th century), on the other. The College Board went back, radically overhauled the framework in sensible ways, and yielded a historically serious course that found prominent champions on the left and right. In the aftermath, AP head Trevor Packer suggested the problem was that college faculty tend to share a worldview and participating high school teachers were hesitant to push back, all of which had yielded an accidental tilt. Well, it seems like the College Board just hit repeat. We’d all benefit if they can hit on a formula for addressing obvious ideological bias before sparking a national furor.

DeSantis’s critics essentially conceded his point. A wave of progressive advocacy groups responded to the announcement by angrily denouncing the College Board for caving to right-wing extremists and censoring black history. The problem with such claims is that—in furiously denouncing revisions which trimmed out advocacy-based introductions to Critical Race Theory, Queer Theory, Black Lives Matter, and reparations—they give lie to previous attacks on DeSantis for mounting (as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin put it) a “full-blown white supremacist” attack on “fact-based history.” It turns out that he was right to criticize the course for commingling history and advocacy; his critics are now conceding that was the point. The Human Rights Campaign lamented the exclusion of the “names of major black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory.” Indeed, where DeSantis’s critics previously said, “All that talk of Critical Race Theory and progressive agendas is just dog-whistling by DeSantis,” now they’re saying, “By taking out the CRT and progressive agendas they gutted the course!”

The change may be less about DeSantis than it seems. DeSantis has been quick to take credit for the College Board’s move and his many fans have been quick to give it to him. His many critics have been equally quick to blame him, treating the College Board’s move as a cave-in. But things may be more complicated than that. After all, the AP program is governed by a big, slow-moving bureaucracy. Checker Finn, who wrote the book on Advanced Placement, has noted that the process for revising an AP framework is “slow and argumentative” and likened it to “turning an aircraft carrier.” There’s a good chance that the College Board is being straight when it says that most (or even all) of these changes were in the hopper before DeSantis put this on the radar a few weeks ago. If that’s the case, the fact that the College Board and DeSantis wound up in pretty much the same place—rich African American history, yes; radical academic fashion, no—should prompt plenty of reflection.

Ultimately, it’s fair to say, the Florida clash wasn’t really about whether to offer AP African American history but to what degree historical instruction should be explicitly political, and whether students should be allowed to encounter skeptics, competing voices, or conservative perspectives. That discussion can be necessary and, at best, constructive.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next.

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