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The College Board began piloting an elective Advanced Placement course in African American studies at 60 high schools across the country last fall. Designed to offer students an evidence-based introduction to African American studies, the course explores the “vital contributions and experiences of African Americans” through the multidisciplinary study of history, politics, geography, science, literature, the arts and humanities.
Twelve days into the new year, the Florida Department of Education, which oversees the Advanced Placement program in the state, sent a letter to Brian Barnes, senior director of the College Board Florida Partnership, rejecting the proposal to offer the curriculum on the grounds that the course content is “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” While failing to disclose which law the course violates or specify which materials are educationally lacking, the letter signed by the Office of Articulation nevertheless notes that should the College Board “be willing to come back to the table with lawful, historically accurate content, FDOE will always be willing to reopen the discussion.”
Defending the decision in the aftermath of swift and widespread repudiation by educators, the Florida Commissioner of Education posted on Twitter, “We proudly require the teaching of African American history. We do not accept woke indoctrination masquerading as education.” This was followed by a statement providing further details about the department’s decision. Among the objections are that the section of the curriculum on “Movements and Debates” doesn’t provide a balanced perspective on reparations and that the readings include the works of Angela Davis, “a self-avowed Communist and Marxist”; Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is “known as the founder of intersectionality,” foundational to critical race theory; and bell hooks, who speaks of “white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Thus, state officials have positioned African American studies as a “vehicle for a political agenda” at odds with Governor Ron DeSantis’s legal mandate that “classrooms will be a place for education, not indoctrination.”
But what about the importance of teaching diverse and comprehensive perspectives of the United States that ultimately frame our understanding of history? By deciding not to teach multiple perspectives and experiences, we’re assuming a single shared perspective on the past and, de facto, a limited and incomplete view of history.
As leaders who advocate for the liberal arts and sciences, we find such moves dangerous. We dwell in a time when diverse voices and perspectives are, at best, being ignored and, at worst, being intentionally erased. A liberal education, whose singular goal is to free learners’ minds to think for themselves, would undoubtedly challenge us to query the desired outcomes of this moment when political leaders pick and choose whose histories and ideas are shared. For us, these moves lead to three unsettling but essential questions.
First, is the goal of this current movement to further inequity and erase the experiences of those in marginalized communities? Most are familiar with the adage “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” This well-known quote would pose the question of whether the goal of those who seek to curtail the complete teaching of historical perspectives and experiences is, in fact, to ensure we repeat the failings of the past. One cannot look at the intentional efforts to refuse to teach the culture of a people and not reasonably ask if we seek to repeat the history of disenfranchisement. Even if the response is, perhaps optimistically, “of course not,” how can we prevent the repetition of history if citizens don’t know it?
Second, might such decisions as these suppress our democracy and the rights of our citizenry? A liberal arts education does not force people to believe a single version or interpretation of the past. It teaches the context, questions and multiple historical perspectives that enable students to understand history for themselves. Founding father Benjamin Rush was explicit about the powerful role of education in what was then a burgeoning and is now a fragile democracy. Rush wrote, “Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge. Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights.” To be refused an education that enables one to know both the facts of and perspectives on history will not only permit its repetition but create a citizenry that cannot, from any political perspective, know, enforce and evolve their rights. Isn’t the role of education—including and especially the role of learning diverse historical experiences and perspectives—to create a society that can think for and govern itself?
Third, how can we move forward as a society committed to a common good when we intentionally suppress a fulsome understanding of the history and humanity of any group? The current conversation suggests that what matters is not our shared history, our shared concerns or our shared future. Instead, a single version of how to view the U.S. and our history is what is being called for. Yet, when you ignore the past, for all the reasons cited above, you compromise the future.
We turn to a politician to offer this insight. Winston Churchill said, “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” Churchill didn’t add the caveat that, in looking backward, we should pick and choose what we see. Instead, we must look back with open and clear eyes. We’ll see pain, yes. But we’ll also see the beauty of what we’ve accomplished, what a people—any group of people—can achieve. Even more, we’ll find future directions by facilitating a complete understanding of the past.
And ultimately, that’s one of the critical issues we must wrestle with as we debate what to include in an education: education isn’t merely an individual pursuit in the current moment; it’s a collective endeavor that frames and enables our collective future.
We have, with intention, attempted to prove our point using the language of the sorts of historical figures whom these suppression efforts try to center. We believe these thinkers would share our outrage at this moment. However, we would be remiss if we didn’t explicitly state that the pantheon of great thinkers is broad and diverse in terms of race, gender, geography and time. We could make this same argument with thinkers students may never know about if they don’t have access to robust historical education.
But we cannot end without citing the thinker whose language was most predictive of this moment, who captures, in this closing quote, what we’re witnessing today. A thinker your child may never hear about if they’re not exposed to a diverse curriculum.
W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “It is propaganda like this that has led men in the past to insist that history is ‘lies agreed upon’; and to point out the danger in such misinformation. It is indeed extremely doubtful if any permanent benefit comes to the world through such action. Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?”
By erasing the history and studies of some, are we not only teaching the propaganda of others?