In this post, I talked about how American history should be taught. Unfortunately, the issues involved have now become more complicated as a result of the dispute over the proposed AP African-American Studies course.
As you know if you’ve read my earlier writings, I believe that high school classes should be welcoming to all viewpoints rather than practicing indoctrination. This is the position allegedly being taken by the opponents of the new AP class, so the question before me now is whether College Board or its critics is most supportive of the right kind of classroom atmosphere. Since Florida is the first place in which this controversy developed, I’ll be using it as an example.
Implications of the “Stop WOKE Act”
One of the reasons for Florida’s rejection of the new AP class is so-called Stop WOKE Act. The purported purpose of the Stop WOKE Act, recently passed by the Florida State Legislature and signed into law by Governor Ron Di Santis, is to prevent indoctrination. As far as I can tell, the college portion of the act is still tied up in court, its effect having been suspended by US District Court Judge Mark. E Walker on First Amendment grounds, a decision that Florida is appealing. The law is still operative on the K-12 level.
The Problem of Vagueness and Mixed Messages
One of the grounds on which the judge questioned the law’s constitutionality was vagueness. The act prohibits employee training or classroom instruction that, “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” certain viewpoints. The language seems simple enough, but determining whether a particular curriculum advances a point of view is a lot harder than determining whether it compels or inculcates that point of view. Some opponents of critical race theory, for example, seem to believe that the law prevents teachers from mentioning critical race theory–this despite the fact that the term isn’t in the law itself.
Perhaps that’s because the handout on the act does explicitly mention CRT. The claim there is that the act, “codifies the Florida Department of Education’s prohibition on teaching critical race theory in K-12 schools.” A subsequent bullet point indicates that the act, “prohibits school districts, colleges and universities from hiring woke CRT consultants.”
This language, far from clarifying the act’s purpose, appears to broaden it. The reference to “teaching critical race theory” could be stretched far enough to prohibit mentioning it or answering a student question about it. That’s the point at which Florida seems to go beyond preventing indoctrination to potentially promoting it, by ruling a particular theory inappropriate to discuss. That’s a giant than further than prohibiting inculcation of that theory.
To be fair, the act also says, “Paragraph (a) [the section defining what cannot be inculcated] may not be construed to prohibit discussion of the concepts listed therein as part of a course of training or instruction, provided such training or instruction is given in an objective manner without endorsement of the concepts.” That language seems both clear and reasonable. It suggests that the handout as a gross oversimplification.
However, much relies on how the law is enforced, leaving what exactly it allows and prohibits up in the air until someone allegedly violates it. Given that educators can be fired and institutions can lose some of their funding, as well as face lawsuits, the fear that the may cause a chilling effect on discussion of racially sensitive topics doesn’t seem completely unreasonable.
How Specific Provisions of the Law Might Chill Legitimate Discussion
Part of the problem is that objectivity is often in the eye of the beholder. As I mentioned in my previous post, critical race theory is defined differently by different people. The act essentially provides a definition that many of the advocates of CRT wouldn’t agree with. And despite the act’s stated commitment to objectivity, some of its language clearly takes a position on the issues involved, rather than viewing them in an objective way.
For example, take a look at #6: “A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex should be discriminated against or received adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity, or inclusion.” Basically, this is a negative way to frame affirmative action.
As I’ve written before, the best way to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion is to create true equality of opportunity. However, that’s an expensive proposition, even if one just looks at educational opportunity, which is one reason politicians haven’t rushed to embrace it. While they work up the courage, all we can do in the interim is affirmative action, even though it’s an imperfect solution. But compensating for past–and present–injustices should not be viewed as discriminating against someone else. That’s like saying that awarding a judgment to a plaintiff suing a government agency is discriminating against everyone else by taking away money that might have been used to benefit them.
If I said that in a Florida classroom, would I be fired or sued? Maybe.
If, to balance a lopsided discussion, I played devil’s advocate and said something like that, would I be fired or sued? Maybe.
That’s a classic chilling effect–you can’t be sure what might be perceived as advocacy of the prohibited position, so you stay away from the subject as much as you can. And in the process, a particular set of ideas is excluded from the conversation completely.
Folks, that looks to me like de facto indoctrination, in this case related to the viability and morality of affirmative action. If promoting a particular point of view directly is indoctrination, then prohibiting the discussion of a particular point of view is also indoctrination, though in a more indirect and subtle way.
Nor is that the only place in which prohibited subject matter could easily trespass on reasonable and appropriate conversation. For instance, consider #7: “A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.”
I’ve interacted with a number of advocates of CRT, and none of them believe this statement, though I’m sure there are some who do. I personally reject the idea of guilt for other people’s actions. But what if I advocate responsibility for addressing the consequences of such past actions? We can’t change the past, after all, but we can alter what we are doing in the present. And what if I inadvertently cause someone to feel guilty as a result of what I’ve said?
Yeah, I might be fired or sued. The only way to avoid that is not to talk about personal responsibility for working toward a more racially just society, and again, we have de facto indoctrination going on.
And then there’s the prohibition on saying that racial colorblindness is racist in #8. I think color-blindness was well intentioned in its origin, and if we had achieved true equality of opportunity, color-blindness would have worked out just fine.
But here’s the thing–we didn’t. And what colorblindness accomplishes now is simply to perpetuate inequalities. In effect, colorblindness is like saying that we should ignore the fact that a person only has one leg if he or she lost the other leg in the past. And perhaps, if that person isn’t walking as fast as people with two legs and isn’t getting as much work done, we should assume he or she is lazy or unmotivated.
Oops! I just got fired in Florida again.
To be clear, I’m not saying teachers in K-12 classrooms should be pushing any of the perspectives I’ve expressed. Not at all! But I do believe that controversial topics should be discussed in an open and balanced fashion. I fear that Florida’s law, under the guise of fighting indoctrination, is actually promoting it by chilling the discussion of certain legitimate viewpoints.
How Political Rhetoric Compounds the Problem
Certainly, Governor’s Di Santis’s rhetoric on this point is not encouraging.
“We believe in education, not indoctrination. We believe an important component of freedom in the state of Florida is the freedom from having oppressive ideologies opposed upon you without your consent.”
“We are not gonna use your tax dollars to teach our kids to hate this country or to hate each other.”
“The bill that we’ll be signing here today provides substantive protections for both students and parents to ensure that the education they’re receiving in Florida is consistent with the standards of the state of Florida. And those standards do not allow pernicious ideologies like critical race theory to be taught in our K-12 schools.” (excerpts from https://www.wptv.com/news/education/floridas-governor-to-sign-critical-race-theory-education-bill-into-law)
It’s interesting that Di Santis, though claiming to promote objectivity in the classroom, is doing so in a very subjective way, for example by assuming that critical race theory is pernicious or that some kinds of conversations about race must inherently lead to hatred.
Keeping in mind that the law was passed before the controversy over the new AP class, I have several questions. Who in Florida was imposing oppressive ideologies? Who was teaching kids to hate each other or their country? Who was even teaching critical race theory?
Taken literally, what Di Santis is talking about is certainly alarming. But while I don’t deny that some people believe what Di Santis is describing, I’m not aware of any of those things actually happening in Florida schools. (If they did, I can’t find any examples being mentioned by the law’s proponents, just vague generalities of the type we see in this speech.)
In other words, it’s possible that Di Santis was “solving” a problem that didn’t actually exist, perhaps creating an entirely new one in the process.
Those of us who lived through the Vietnam era will remember the dueling slogans, “America–love it or leave it,” and “America–change it to save it.” The first equates dissent with hatred of the country–ironic considering how many of our national heroes were viewed as dissenters in their own lifetimes. The second, to which I subscribe, assumes that America, like any other country, has its great successes but also its problems that need to be addressed. I’m afraid that some of Di Santis’s supporters–if not Di Santis himself–confuse difference of opinion with hatred. That confusion is not at all a good foundation for objectivity. It also increases the likelihood that problems won’t be solved.
In this context, it’s reasonable to point out that other terms besides critical race theory are being defined in a provocative way not necessarily consistent with how some advocates would define them. The most obvious example is woke.
From Governor Di Santis’s inaugural address: ““We reject this woke ideology. We seek normalcy, not philosophical lunacy. We will not allow reality, facts, and truth to become optional. We will never surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.”
But what does the term actually mean? Merriam-Webster defines woke as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” Clearly, Di Santis isn’t trying to say that Florida is where awareness of racial and social justice goes to die. Instead, he’s redefining the word to suit his own purposes. It’s certainly an unintentionally ironic move to use that kind of manipulation in a speech in which he salutes the importance of facts, but, to be fair, he may not have been the first politician to shift the term’s meaning.
Nonetheless, that approach doesn’t increase my faith in a fair reasonable enforcement of the new legislation. Taken in the context of the rhetoric used by the act’s components, it seems to me that a chilling effect on legitimate discussion is more likely than not.
Di Santis’s Ties to Hillsdale College as a Test of His Commitment to Objectivity
According to an article on the USA Today website, “Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this month appointed six new members to the board of trustees of a public college in his state that describes itself as ‘a community of free thinkers, risk takers and trailblazers.’ Underlying these changes, Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz said, ‘is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South.'”
According to the same article, Hillsdale College came from abolitionist roots and was an early adopter of bans on racial, religious, and gender discrimination in its charter. More recently, it’s become a conservative bastion, with an administration that opposes affirmative action and strongly supports Donald Trump.
Hillsdale College is, of course, entitled to be as conservative as it wants. It is a private institution (unlike New College, which is public–a distinction I’m not Di Santis and Diaz get if they want to use one as a model for the other). In any case, if it wishes to devote itself to a particular ideology, it may do so. Certainly, it isn’t the first private college to do that. But to the extent that it serves in an advisory capacity to some k-12 schools, its potential bias becomes more of an issue, especially given Di Santis’s obvious regard for the college. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the nature and strength of that bias.
Hillsdale’s president led Trump’s 1776 Commission, which issued a report that, at least from the point of view of many critics, excused slavery and condemned the civil rights movement.
Though I’m all in favor of evaluating historical figures based on the standards of their own times, the report appears to me to carry that tendency to an extreme. For example, it defends the founders from charges of hypocrisy on the slavery issue. It’s true that abolishing slavery would have been politically impossible at that point. It’s also true that the founders sowed the ideological seeds that helped create the abolitionist movement. But those facts don’t really excuse hypocrisy. Slaveowners like Washington and Jefferson could have freed their own slaves even if they couldn’t have won a fight to abolish slavery in Virginia. I value their philosophical contributions to abolition but wish that they could also have led by example. They aren’t histories grossest sinners, but nor are they its greatest saints. An objective view of them would acknowledge both elements.
Even more obviously bizarre is the attack on progressivism, which is lumped together with slavery, fascism, communism and racism as a challenge to America’s principles. Apparently, the hero worship of the founders doesn’t extend to later figures like Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, or Woodrow Wilson. And the description of progressivism is as much of a distortion as are the current descriptions of critical race theory. Progressivism was a broad movement that encompassed a lot of different tendencies. But there’s no sign of this diversity in the commission report, which attributes the same viewpoint to all progressives and sees their only achievement as the creation of
“what amounts to a fourth branch of government called at times the bureaucracy or the administrative state. This shadow government never faces elections and today operates largely without checks and balances.”
From the description, you’d never know that government officials involved in actual policymaking are appointed by officials who do face elections. Nor would you know that most progressives were very much interested in popular control of government and were responsible for reforms such as the selection of party candidates by primaries rather than conventions, direct popular election of senators, recall elections, women’s suffrage, initiatives, and referendums, all of which made government more responsive to the people, not less. Nor does it mention progressive contributions such as civil service reforms, attempts to constrain dangerous growth in monopolies, and the beginnings of social programs aimed at protecting the most vulnerable members of society. Not all of these reforms worked out as well as they might have, but to ignore all of them certainly distorts the nature and effect of progressivism.
The coverage of civil rights movement (described, together with identity politics, under racism) is equally one-sided and distorted. The distortion is largely the result of the same attitude present in some of the Florida prohibitions–the idea that any attempt to compensate for past injustices is racist. It’s important to stress that this position is an opinion, not an objective fact. It’s certainly legitimate to question the degree and type of compensation, as well as how such compensation can be paid for. But to deny the idea completely, possibly to the point of forbidding discussion of it in schools, is indoctrination, not objectivity.
While one could certainly find support for some of the arguments of 1776 Commission, on balance, it is not a model of the kind of objectivity that Di Santis claims to want for historical discussions in the classroom.
Of course, one could argue that the attitudes of Hillsdale’s president are not necessarily indicative of the philosophy of the institution, though there is usually some relationship between the what the president of a college believes and the underlying beliefs of the college. What other evidence is there about how objectively Hillsdale treats historical issues?
Unfortunately, Hillsdale’s model 1776 curriculum isn’t available to the general public, and I don’t want to lie and say that I’m still a teacher to get a copy. But I do get Hillsdale’s speech digest, Imprimis. (I have no idea why, since I didn’t subscribe to it.)
In general, this particular publication shows a singular lack of objectivity. While I can’t say whether or not that lack of objectivity is also present in its high school curriculum, the publication does make me uneasy. In my experience, a curriculum will tend to reflect the philosophy of the people who developed it, at least to some extent.
(Fun fact: the Imprimis archive pages online include an ad for one of Hillsdale’s online courses, The American Left: from Liberalism to Despotism. The title speaks for itself. And something tells me that if Hillsdale offered a free course titled, The American Right: from Conservatism to Fascism, that Di Santis might not be as enthusiastic about using Hillsdale as a model for New College.)
In general, the speeches and articles in Imprimis are well written, intelligently argued–and totally one-sided. To borrow from Di Santis’s rhetoric, Imprimis is where objectivity goes to die.
That’s not to say that the factual statements involved are necessarily wrong. Doubtless, many of them are accurate. The problem is more what is not included. Facts and possible alternative interpretations inconsistent with the author’s viewpoint are routinely minimized or completely ignored.
That’s not uncommon, and Hillsdale has the right to showcase whatever ideology it wishes. It is under no obligation to present all possible arguments on an issue. But if objectivity in K-12 education is one of Governor Di Santis’s goals, he should pick for inspiration and perhaps advice a group with a less obvious ax to grind , or at least involve different groups, with different axes. If you draw all your inspiration from sources with the same ideological position, it’s hard not to end up with a curriculum that favors that position.
If you don’t need the example below, you can use the table of contents to skip it. Some people may find it digressive. But I do find it important, particularly in an era when specific evidence is so often neglected, to provide some for those who wish it.
An Example of the Hillsdale Bias
A representative example is “The Politicization of the Department of Justice” in the August 2022 issue. While I agree with the author, Harmeet K. Dhillon, on the problematic nature of the restriction of rights following 9/11, I find most of her three modern examples dubious at best.
With regard to the DOJ’s handling of parents at school board meetings, the author writes,
“On October 4, 2021, Garland issued a memorandum directing the FBI to address ‘threats’ at local school board meetings. This was in response to a request from the National School Boards Association that the DOJ leverage the Patriot Act and other counterterrorism tools to investigate moms and dads who were voicing their displeasure with school policies at local school board meetings.”
This statement is correct only in part. The National School Boards Association did raise the issue with the DOJ, asking “”for federal law enforcement and other assistance to deal with the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation.” In other words, we aren’t talking parents voicing their displeasure, as Dhillon suggests. We’re talking about actual threats of violence against public officials, which we should be able to agree is quite different. Dhillon’s claim, though made also by several Republican politicians, that the DOJ went after parents simply for criticizing school policies, has been thoroughly debunked. You can find more information here.
Similarly flawed are the authors claims about the 2020 election. She’s right in claiming that election integrity is important and that, “Elections are the engine of our republic.” There’s nothing wrong with ensuring that election results are honest and accurate. Quite the contrary.
But it’s one thing to challenge an election when there is solid evidence to suggest that a problem exists. It’s another thing to keep asserting that an election was rigged in the absence of such evidence. I certainly won’t pit my non-existent legal experience against the author’s considerable experience. But I will note that the people who questioned the election had their day in court–fifty-six times. And on each of those occasions, the court dismissed the complaint, usually for lack of evidence, occasionally also for flawed legal reasoning.
It’s important to note the diversity of the judges involved. Some of them were Democratic appointees. Some of them were Republican appointees. Some of them were appointed by Trump himself. Some were state judges. Some were federal judges. None of that mattered. They all reached the same conclusion–that the plaintiffs failed to provide sufficient evidence of election irregularities to justify the remedies sought, such as overturning the election results. The Supreme Court itself had two opportunities to intervene and declined to do so both times. Apparently, some of the claims were so ridiculous that attorneys have subsequently faced sanctions over them.
It’s safe to say that no other American election had been so much litigated as that one. An important part of respecting the rule of law is accepting the outcome of an adverse court decision–as Al Gore did in 2000. The problem in this case is that Donald Trump and his supporters kept pushing their claims after all those decisions came in–and many actively worked to overturn the election despite those decisions–as well as the decisions of state officials, some of them Republicans, to certify the elections.
And that’s where the problem comes in. Asking for recounts and asking for court rulings on particular issues are legitimate parts of the process. Trying to overturn the election after all of those recourses have been exhausted, and encouraging violence–whether accidentally or deliberately–is not a legitimate part of the process. The author’s comparisons of 2020 with 2000, 2004, and 2016 are not valid for that very reason.
In 2000, Al Gore was denied a complete recount in a few Florida counties by the Supreme Court. He accepted that result, which is one reason Senate Democrats didn’t challenge it. (Contrast this with the 2020 election, in which Republicans got three recounts in Georgia, including a complete audit of the signatures on mail-in ballots, and still weren’t satisfied.)
Yes, fifteen representatives challenged the results during the congressional count–but compare that to the eight senators and one hundred thirty-nine representatives who challenged election results during the count in 2020. The numbers would have been even higher if Trump’s supporters hadn’t attacked the Capitol, which changed at least a few votes. And, as one Senior District Judge Reggie Walton pointed out, ““Al Gore had a better case to argue than Mr. Trump, but he was a man about what happened to him. He accepted it and walked away.” It’s difficult to see how any objective observer would consider the two elections to be comparable.
In 2004, thirty-four Democratic representatives and one senator voted to reject the Ohio electoral vote. The subsequent Conyers Report revealed that, although no fraud could be proven, black areas had a disproportionately smaller number of voting machines than white areas, leading to longer lines and possibly depressing turnout. In that kind of situation, there is no way to prove that the identified problem changed the outcome of the election, though given the closeness of the margin and the results from black voters who did cast ballots, it is certainly a possibility that the result could have been altered. Just as with Florida in 2000, the Ohio result could have changed the outcome of the presidential election. Yet in neither case did Democrats in general continue to reject the outcome after the completion of the congressional process. Nor did they resort to violence in an attempt to overturn it.
In 2016, there were several objections to certification of Trump electors on the basis of Russian interference in the election. Subsequently, the Senate Intelligence Committee, at the time controlled by Republicans, confirmed that there had been Russian interference in the election. As in 2004, there is no way to determine the extent to which the interference affected the election.
Some Democrats were also annoyed that the electoral college had once again given victory to the person who came in second in the popular vote, which led to demonstrations against Trump assuming office. But Hillary Clinton conceded the day after the election. Contrast her performance with that of Trump, who still hasn’t conceded more than two years later.
I can’t say this often enough–there’s a big difference between questioning an election outcome through legal channels and refusing to accept the outcome even after legal remedies are exhausted. Representative government cannot long survive in a situation in which the losers refuse to concede, particularly when such refusal leads to illegal acts and even violence. In responding to such a situation, the Justice Department is doing its job, not serving a particular political agenda.
If you read the original piece to which I’m responding, you’ll notice that significant facts are omitted, in each case to make the 2020 election seem more consistent with previous elections or to minimize how strongly courts and election officials rejected the conspiracy theories in circulation at the time–and even now. The piece is like the presentation of a litigator trying to make the case for her client–and not objective in any sense of the term.
I could cite many more examples. (The same piece also includes an equally defective analysis of the Mar a Lago search.) But I think you get the point.
The same is true of every issue of Imprimis that I’ve read to date. The facts are carefully curated to produce the effect that the author wants. And the author invariably wants to promote principles that are conservative and Republican. The authors are entitled to do that, and Hillsdale is entitled to publish their efforts. The only problem I have with any of that is the possibility of such a one-sided approach influencing public schools in Florida or elsewhere.
To be clear, the material in Imprimis doesn’t prove that Hilldale College is incapable of creating an impartial history curriculum. But in my experience, it’s hard to create such a thing in the first place. History, unless it’s presented as a series of facts with no analysis, is always presented from some viewpoint. Even a simple series of facts can subtly express a viewpoint based on what is included and what is omitted. The only way to approximate an objective presentation is to include different viewpoints–something that may not be Hillsdale’s strong suit.
Conservatives opposed to the new AP course have in some cases been critical of the background of one or more of the people on the committee who created it, and to some extent, it is legitimate to raise the question of possible bias, especially when what is produced seems to align closely with the participants’ own ideology. But that works both ways–the ideology and goals of the course’s opponents are just as subject to legitimate questions as the course’s proponents.
What Does the AP African-American Studies Really Do?
As I’ve suggested above, the opponents of the course might justifiably be accused of having an agenda beyond just wanting to ensure that indoctrination is not happening in K-12 classrooms. However, even if the opponents do indeed have such an agenda, that doesn’t automatically mean that the AP course is appropriate. The course needs to stand on its own merits.
How Does the Creation of a New AP Course Work?
New AP courses are not completed at the drop of a hat. The process for creating them is extensive and involves both high school teachers in related subject areas and college professors who teach similar courses. The latter is important because many colleges give college credit for scoring well on the AP exam for a particular subject.
College Board claims that this particular course has been in development for more than a decade. Here’s College Board’s summary of the content: “The interdisciplinary course reaches into a variety of fields—literature, the arts and humanities, political science, geography, and science—to explore the vital contributions and experiences of African Americans.”
Near the end of the process, a number of teams work on course development: the content writing team, development committee and advisory board. Efforts are made to include educators from a variety of areas and backgrounds. Interestingly, Florida is represented twice on the development committee and once on the much smaller content writing team.
A new AP course always goes through a pilot stage before being offered for credit. It’s the pilot program, not the final course, that is currently being tested in schools. One might have thought a good way for Florida to test its assumptions about the AP course would have been to participate in the pilot. But in any case, it’s not uncommon for substantial changes to be made during the pilot stage.
In other words, most of the concern over the course is being directed at a rough draft, not the finished product. As the College Board itself said a few days ago, ““The process of piloting and revising course frameworks is a standard part of any new A.P. course, and frameworks often change significantly as a result.” In the draft framework, College Board also noted that, “the breadth of topics is currently larger than what is found in any one semester of introductory African American studies courses at colleges. We anticipate a 10-20% reduction of topics based on feedback from the Symposium.”
Put another way, any legitimate concerns would likely have been addressed through the normal process of revision. There was no real need for a lot of overheated political rhetoric to get the job done.
Criticisms of the Course
Having downloaded the draft course framework made available by the Florida Standard, I can say, based on my love of history and qualifications to teach history and related courses in California, that at least some of the criticism are dubious. In particular, I find the Florida Department of Education’s assertion that the course “significantly lacks educational value,” to be misleading. It’s apparent from Di Santis’s remarks and other sources that the real objection is to way history is being interpreted, not to the accuracy of the historical facts being presented. And the course, like all AP courses, is certainly geared toward critical thinking skills. The framework suggests a good and representative use of primary sources, and I didn’t see any inaccurate statements, though it would have been possible to argue with interpretation in some cases.
It’s probably a good idea to take some of the other, mores specific criticisms separately. I’ll do that below. But first, I’ll talk a little bit about how AP courses are actually taught. Understanding the way that they work answers some of the objections, which are based on ignorance of the way teachers use course materials.
How AP Courses Are Taught
As a student, I took two AP courses, European History and US History. (Sadly, my school didn’t offer AP English.) As a teacher, I taught AP Language and Composition for several years, some of them involved in a team-taught course with an AP US teacher. Consequently, I have a fair amount of experience with how those courses work.
Since so many of the objections rest on the inclusion of particular authors in the curriculum, it’s important to note that AP classes in English and history typically don’t require the use of particular texts. Such texts as are mentioned in the framework, are given as examples, not mandates.
For instance, AP Language and Composition focuses heavily on rhetorical analysis. But there is no series of works the College Board prescribes for that purpose. There isn’t even one work that is mandated. A lot of works are suggested.
Given my interest in history and my work with the team-taught course, I used a chronological approach. One of my key sources was William Safire’s Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History. I focused on the American ones, which covered most of American history and several different ideological perspectives.
Most of the sources I used were not even mentioned in the course framework, but I had no problem passing the course audit. As long as I could demonstrate that I was covering the required topics and working on the required skills, College Board could have care less which works I used.
The same was true in AP US History, though one particular text was favored by AP teachers at the time. But in the interest of using sources with different perspectives, AP teachers at my school typically also used one or two others as supplements. The central text was traditional political history. One of the others was social history (more emphasis on what the Joe Average was up to than what was going on in the White House). Another was social history with an admittedly greater emphasis on the negative. By itself, the book wouldn’t have been a balanced approach–it was intended to cover material not mentioned much in more traditional texts. But it made a nice supplement. However, none of those texts were mandated by the College Board.
Use of Literature in AP African-American Studies
Guess what? The new course framework doesn’t mandate titles, either. Instead, the various topics are filled with suggestions. Phrases like, “Students may examine a text by,” followed by a list of one or more suggestions, are common. Also included are charts show how often various works are used at the high school and college levels. I didn’t find any situations in which the teaching of one particular work was mandated. Consequently, a lot of outrage expressed in statements about a particular author being a Marxist, for example, are based on a misunderstanding that every AP African-American Studies class must use that author’s work. That’s not the way the College Board works.
However, it might reasonably be argued that some topics would require the use of one of authors some groups have found objectionable. One of the examples that comes up most often is intersectionality, which might reasonably have to include the writings of Kimberle Crenshaw or someone similar.
Intersectionality is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” In other words, some people might be discriminated against for more than one reason. On its most basic level, the statement is hard to argue with. Obviously, someone who had a bias against both blacks and women would react more strongly to a black woman than to a black man or a white woman.
But as this article in Vox points out, conservatives have raised issues about the concept of intersectionality.
“To many conservatives, intersectionality means ‘because you’re a minority, you get special standards, special treatment in the eyes of some.’ It ‘promotes solipsism at the personal level and division at the social level.’ It represents a form of feminism that ‘puts a label on you. It tells you how oppressed you are. It tells you what you’re allowed to say, what you’re allowed to think.’ Intersectionality is thus ‘really dangerous’ or a ‘conspiracy theory of victimization.'”
The author of the article, Jane Coaston, interviewed Crenshaw as well as some of her critics. For people interested in the issue, the article deserves to be read in full. For our purposes, it is enough to note that conservatives interviewed actually agreed with the idea of intersectionality. That is, they accepted the notion that people would be treated in different ways depending upon their backgrounds. Their concern was that intersectionality, in defining a current hierarchy, would lead to the creation of an inverse hierarchy, one in which the currently advantaged groups would become disadvantaged groups.
Needless to say, Crenshaw denies that is her intention, and I can’t find anything in my (admittedly hurried) look at her writings that would suggest she has ever advocated such an inverse hierarchy. Coaston is clear on that point. “But Crenshaw isn’t seeking to build a racial hierarchy with black women at the top. Through her work, she’s attempting to demolish racial hierarchies altogether.”
Which is what we should all want, correct? Near the insertion point for a lot of the changes in the Stop WOKE Act, the Florida code has this to say about required instruction (emphasis mine): “The history and content of the Declaration of Independence, including national sovereignty, natural law, self evident truth, equality of all persons, limited government, popular sovereignty, and inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property, and how they form the philosophical foundation of our government.”
It’s worth noting at this point that the Florida Education Standards, which I spent some time studying, don’t ignore the problems of racism in American society, either. For example, here is the description for one of the attached student tutorials: “Learn about Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois and their rivalry of ideas in this interactive tutorial. Both men were African-American leaders during the ‘nadir’ of race relations, but they had very different visions.”
Interestingly, both are also included in the AP African-American Studies curriculum. More interesting is that W.E.B Du Bois is also–gasp–a socialist. Is it the position of Florida that it’s OK for students to learn about the socialists of long ago, but that more contemporary people with left-wing economic ideas are somehow out of bounds?
I also found a number of the nuggets while browsing through the Florida Department of Education website. Its social studies section includes a full page on African-American Studies. It indicates that the Florida Course Code Directory includes six courses related to African-American history or African history. It also provides a number of guidelines for the teaching of the subject matter, which include the following:
“Students shall develop an understanding of the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping on individual freedoms, and examine what it means to be a responsible and respectful person, for the purpose of encouraging tolerance of diversity in a pluralistic society and for nurturing and protecting democratic values and institutions.”
Looking at that, you might begin to wonder why Florida politicians are so resistant to an AP course that, when properly interpreted, probably has the same goal as their own curriculum. As much as I disagree with Florida’s governor on some things, his statements about his state’s inclusion of African-American topics in the curriculum is correct. A lot of attention is paid to such issues, and except as noted in my objections above to some of the prohibited subjects, I couldn’t have designed better standards myself.
I think this guideline might hint at where the problem lies (emphasis mine):
“Instructional personnel may facilitate discussions and use curricula to address, in an age-appropriate manner, how the individual freedoms of persons have been infringed by slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination, as well as topics relating to the enactment and enforcement of laws resulting in racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination and how recognition of these freedoms has overturned these unjust laws.”
A number of unjust laws certainly have been overturned or repealed. But we do still have racial inequality despite that. While doing the reading necessary to prepare this post, I realized that this is where the rift between Florida (and various conservatives) and the College Board is.
What Really Separates the Two Sides
Both acknowledge a past history of racial injustice. However, as the language above and various benchmarks in the Florida standards reveal, Florida views rational injustice as mostly something in the past, and while it encourages mutual respect among different groups, it doesn’t assume any kind of large-scale problem with the current system. In contrast, College Board assumes the presence of at least some systemic racism, whether people are conscious of it or not.
This is perhaps one of the key divides in this aspect of the culture war, but it’s not an unbridgeable chasm.
I understand that some advocates of intersectionality and critical race theory have pushed those views to an undesirable extreme. But the problems identified are real, even if some advocates are overly judgmental and/or dogmatic about how to solve those problems.
I don’t want to repeat my previous posts too much, but educational inequality alone is staggering. This is more of a socio-economic issue than a racial one, but given that people of color are overrepresented among the poor, the problem does have a racial dynamic. Minimizing problems like that or pretending they don’t exist is not going to make them go away. If anything, it will only exacerbate them.
At the same time, the solution is not to try to make people in relatively better off groups feel guilty over the past. Unless someone already does feel guilty, that kind of approach is likely to push them in the opposite direction from the one advocates for racial justice want them to move. And we also need to acknowledge that a lot of groups have been oppressed to a greater or lesser degree. At the risk of stating the obvious, there are poor white people, too. Ironically, in cases like that, intersectionality could also be a tool to promote greater understanding among groups. Many of us are advantaged in some ways and disadvantaged in others. We don’t all fit into neat, single categories.
Going back for a moment to the piece of Florida curriculum that compares W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, it offers a model (often used in current AP classes) for addressing issues related to potential biases in the writings of one author–include other authors, representing different perspectives. The College Board doesn’t prohibit such an approach. Indeed, as my examples above suggest, this is a time-honored approach, and courses using it pass the course audit with no problem.
In this case, black authors from the left could be balanced by black authors from the right. I think immediately of J.C. Watts, the former Oklahoma Congressman who wrote, What Color Is a Conservative? and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, some of whose speeches could doubtless be used. I’m just citing a couple of examples off the top of my head. There are many, many more.
This approach could be used even with the draft AP course framework exactly as it is now. And it would probably have taken an experienced AP teacher in Florida all of about five minutes to figure that out. But then, of course, nobody would have had the opportunity to score cheap political points over the issue.
(Yes, as you might gather, I’m very opposed to the intrusion of too much politics into the educational decision-making. Over the years, we’ve done a lot of damage that way.)
In any case, the College Board announced yesterday (January 25) that it was going to make some changes in the course framework, thus perhaps rendering all this discussion moot–though life seldom works out that easily. Nonetheless, I should comment on one more issue in the current draft, just in case. This really should have gone in the previous section (before my epiphany over the source of the dispute), but I’m not going to do a lot of reorganizing now.
Black Queer Studies
When the Florida Department of Education responded to questions about its rationale for banning the AP African-American Studies course, most of them were based on topics that might involve critical race theory or intersectionality. The latter seems to have been part of the reason behind questioning topic 4.19. I’ve already addressed some of the questions related to the literature involved, but this one is a tricky because I think more is involved her than just questions of intersectionality or perceived radicalism of particular writers.
Remember the discussion on the so-called Don’t Say Gay legislation? It would have been reasonable to pass legislation to eliminate all sexual topics from first through third grade on the basis of age-inappropriateness. But that isn’t what happened. Instead, we got a law that specifically restricts only certain kinds of discussions. The law restricts (emphasis mine),
“classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
Instead of a general prohibition, the law singles out all topics related to the LGBT+ community. It’s not that students in that age range are necessarily ready to process all the related issues, but are they ready to process much of anything related to sexuality? And if they aren’t, why does the law single out only certain topics?
Governor Di Santis argues that, ““When you try to use Black history to shoehorn in queer theory, you are clearly trying to use that for political purposes.” I’m inclined to think that Di Santis’s purposes, based on his earlier actions, are themselves political.
To address the elephant in the closet, we all know that American society is deeply divided on issues related to the LGBT+ community and that some of those divisions run deep. That said, in order to provide educational equality, we can’t really discriminate against a particular group of students. Of course, some conservative groups will claim that their rights, particularly religious ones, are under attack if the LGBT+ community is given any kind of legitimacy. The key question here is how to balance the rights of the two groups?
My father, who was for many years an elementary school teacher and administrator, when explaining the concept of rights to sixth graders, used to say, “Your right to swing your arm ends where the other person’s face begins.” For me, one of the critical questions in balancing rights has always been, what kind of harm might a particular interpretation of rights do to another group?”
It’s been well-known for a number of years that students struggling with issues of sexual preference and gender identity are much more likely to commit suicide than their peers are. I sometimes mention this fact in discussions with people who oppose things like same sex marriage. I point out that, if their objection is based on the idea that homosexuality is a sin, doesn’t sin involve choice? And if people are miserable enough to kill themselves because of their sexual identify, doesn’t that suggest that they aren’t choosing that identity? In such cases, does their identity really qualify as a sin? (It is possible to reconcile same-sex relationships even with biblical literalism if one takes into consideration that the author of Leviticus and Paul may have been responding to very specific situations which are not the same as those that exist today.)
Obviously, a public school can’t take a particular position on scriptural interpretation, but one fact is clear–the school has to do everything it can to prevent suicide. And since I’ve never heard of a case of a religiously conservative student killing himself or herself because a school treated LGBT+ students as equal to any other students, it’s pretty clear where the greater harm would lie here–and thus where the boundary between rights needs to be drawn.
(If you’re not familiar with statistics related to LGBT+ suicides, there are many studies available online. For example, this one, from the American Association of Pediatricians, indicates that LGBT+ students are three times as likely to commit suicide as their straight and cisgender peers.)
Given the open-endedness of the Ninth Amendment, among other things, we know that the enumerated rights are not intended to be an exhaustive list. In the ongoing evolution of rights, the way in which society perceives those rights is also significant. According to the Gallup Poll, in 1996, only 27% of the American people supported same-sex marriage. But by 2022, 71% did.
I know originalists will growl at me over this, but I think the basic principles behind the rights explicitly defined in the Bill of Rights and elsewhere can be interpreted in light of changing public attitudes. When the Constitution was written, marriage was visualized as between a man and a woman. There’s no question about that. But marriage was conceived of as a fundamental right, though it didn’t gain explicit constitutional sanction until Loving v. Virginia in 1967, which struck down laws banning interracial marriage.
A strict originalist would have problems with this decision, since in early American society, interracial relationships, though they occurred, especially in the dubious context of slavery, were viewed as shameful and even horrifying. Yet even most conservatives today wouldn’t think of overturning Loving. That suggests to me that even originalists must concede that rights do evolve over time in some ways.
What’s the practical implication of all this for schools? LGBT+ students are entitled to the same rights as any other students–which would mean that LGBT+ topics shouldn’t be excluded from the curriculum any more than topics related to any other group should be excluded.
As with any other groups that have animosities with each other, LGBT+ students and religiously conservative students should be required to treat each other with respect. In practice, that means that the religiously conservative students shouldn’t denounce the LGBT+ students as sinners or refuse to associate with them for classroom purposes. But it also means that LGBT+ students shouldn’t denounce religiously conservative students for their beliefs or refuse to associate with them for classroom purposes, either.
This may sound utopian, but with the right attitude on the part of administration and teachers, it can be made to work. The school where I used to teach had a high concentration of Jewish students, many of whom who had come from Israel or had relatives there. But it also had some Palestinian Arab students. As you can imagine, there were tensions between the two groups. But over time, and without much need for adult intervention, they developed a general agreement not to push each other on things like Palestinian statehood or the policies of the Israeli government. I can’t think of any disciplinary incidents caused by the potential conflict boiling over, though there may have been a few of which I wasn’t aware.
But what about keeping the peace when a curriculum unit threatens to bring the underlying disagreement to the surface? I’ve had some experience with that, as well. Over the years, I taught two Bible-as-literature units, one in my senior World Literature class, and one in my Freshman Honors English class.
I should mention that the student population is religiously diverse. Though most students are Jewish, there are a fair number of Christians of various denominations, some Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and occasionally, even members of smaller groups, such as Zoroastrians and members of the Bahai faith. At one time or another, I had members of all these groups in classes in which there was a unit on biblical literature. Some students were uncomfortable at the very beginning, but I never had any complaints by the end.
How did I manage that? I made it clear at the outset that we were looking at the Bible as we would any other literary work, with the exception that, in discussing interpretation of the material, I would never give my own opinion. Instead, I would discuss how various groups looked at the text. (That ended up giving the students a much-needed exposure to the field of comparative religion.) Students were permitted to share their own beliefs (or lack thereof) or to explain how their own religion addressed the same issue. However, students were not permitted to criticize each other’s beliefs.
Something that also helped was reminding students that studying literature didn’t mean agreeing with the author. This is a point that I think many conservatives are missing with regard to AP African-American Studies and similar curricular issues. A teacher can teach a work without pushing for agreement with its messages. And students can read a work without surrendering their own viewpoint to it. This is more difficult with younger students, but most high schoolers should have no trouble with it. For example, your typical high school student is not suddenly going to become an advocate of the abolition of prisons just because he or she read an essay advocating such a thing.
- History classes and others involving potentially controversial issues should provide fair and balanced treatment to all major positions on those issues, These means not forbidding the discussion of legitimate arguments.
- All classes should create an atmosphere of mutual respect that leaves room vigorous discussion of issues.
- Though the allegations against the AP African-American Studies course are largely unfounded, in part because people don’t understand the relationship between the framework and the classroom, any legitimate concerns can easily be addressed through the normal process of course revision and through the suggestions offered here.
- Political leaders should deal with education in broad policy strokes and not become overly involved in legislating details, which could be better handled by educators.
- Political leaders should always avoid using educational policy as a political football. In that game, everyone loses–including the students.
(featured image copyrighted by lightspring and licensed from Shutterstock)