UI reacts to rejection of African American studies class

By Matt Troher and Cecilia Milmoe

National attention is growing toward Florida in the wake of the state’s Board of Education’s decision to reject a pilot high school Advanced Placement African American Studies class. The rejection of the course, combined with a larger national conversation regarding the teaching of history and social justice, has resulted in backlash toward Florida’s decision from educators, students and politicians.

Earlier in the month, the Florida Board of Education, backed by the support of Gov. Ron DeSantis, announced that it will reject the AP course on the pretense that the course pushes a “political agenda.”

DeSantis has criticized the course’s curriculum that, in part, focuses on intersectionality and Black queer studies, stating in a press conference that “we don’t believe they (students) should have an agenda imposed on them. When you try to use Black history to shoehorn in queer theory, you are clearly trying to use that for political purposes.” 

According to the course’s current overview developed by the College Board, only one course topic out of 102 focuses on “Black queer studies.”

Other objections for the course cited by the Florida BOE were centered around the course’s final unit, titled “Movements and Debates.” The unit, which focuses on contemporary issues regarding race in American society, includes the potential reading of texts from authors and scholars such as Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kimberlé Crenshaw.

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    The move from the Florida BOE comes months after the Florida State Legislature passed the Individual Freedom Act — also known as the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” — which prohibits the teaching of certain concepts regarding race. According to a pamphlet distributed on DeSantis’ website, the act “codifies the Florida Department of Education’s prohibition on teaching critical race theory in K-12 schools” and “prohibits school districts, colleges and universities from hiring woke CRT consultants.”

    On Jan. 25, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker sent a letter to the College Board, criticizing what he called “political grandstanding” by DeSantis.  

    “One Governor should not have the power to dictate the facts of U.S. history,” Pritzker wrote. “In Illinois, we reject any curriculum modifications designed to appease extremists like the Florida Governor and his allies.”

    The AP African American Studies course is currently in development with the College Board. The course is being piloted in 60 high schools across the nation for the 2022-23 school year with plans to expand to hundreds of schools by the following academic year. The first AP African Studies exams are planned to be administered in spring 2025.

    The banning of the AP African American Studies course, alongside broader legislation such as the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, has fueled a broader conversation about the politicization of education and the role of social justice in the classroom.

    College Board is an educational nonprofit that develops and administers Advanced Placement courses designed to give high school students college-level class experience. A high enough score on a standardized test at the culmination of an Advanced Placement can be used to earn college credit. Current AP courses cover a wide breadth of subjects, from art history to biology to United States government.

    Recent debate about social justice education has focused around critical race theory, or CRT. Initially conceived as an academic framework that examines how institutions shape and are shaped by conceptions of race, CRT has become a central phrase in the broader cultural debate over social issues, symbolizing different things for different ideologies. Some conservatives have characterized CRT as “false” and “anti-American” and have used it to symbolize a leftward shift in education.

    Emily Knox, associate professor in Information Sciences, researches intellectual freedom and censorship. Knox explained how CRT has been used by the public to characterize new ways of thinking about American history. 

    “What people are talking about now with (CRT) is really not (what it was conceived as). It’s actually a way of talking about how we talk about our history — especially the painful parts of our history,” Knox said. “(CRT) is really much more about a less triumphalist idea of the American project, and it’s basically just a label that’s been put on new ways of thinking about our history and society.”

    Knox also emphasized that part of the problem is the assumption that the study of history is supposed to be apolitical. Knox said all history is inherently political and so is the teaching of that history.

    “All curriculum is political, and so is AP African American Studies,” Knox said. “It’s saying that it’s important for people who are considered to be educated to know about African American history, and we’re going to teach all different aspects of African American history. There’s an idea that we can somehow teach African American history without it being divisive, and I don’t know if that is possible. How do you teach about owning other people without it being something that is a painful reckoning with the past?”

    Chrissy Kim, sophomore in LAS, is a member of the Society of Minority Students in History and plans to pursue a career as a high school history teacher. Kim said there is room for improvement in the way U.S. history is taught. 

    “Even though it’s history, it doesn’t mean it’s confined to the past,” Kim said. “It’s shaping how we view the world and its systems. Especially with (the history of) marginalized groups, those are histories and realities that they still grapple with, so ignoring it and avoiding it doesn’t make it any less real or true.”

    Asif Wilson, assistant professor in Education, researches justice-centered pedagogies and teaches a class called EDUC 202: Social Justice, School, and Society. A portion of Wilson’s research focuses on the historical forces of social movements and how they can be taught in the classroom. Wilson noted that the section of the course that the Florida BOE singled out focused on social movements, which he said were the most likely to inspire concrete change.

    “It wasn’t that they don’t want Black history taught, they don’t want a particular type of Black history taught because it’s dangerous,” Wilson said. “For me, social movements are dangerous to the status quo because they actually run the potential of transforming space, transforming minds, and that is not necessarily a reproduction of the status quo.”

     

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