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I am indebted to people who said to me last Shabbat, “February is Black History Month, and at the Unity Shabbat this week we will read B’shallach, the first step of the Israelites from slavery to freedom.” Annually, we celebrate the first step from slavery to freedom, and the Torah mandates that we teach our children that lesson. Contrast that with Florida, rejecting an Advance Placement class in African-American studies.
In a letter last week, the Florida Department of Education informed the College Board (which administers Advance Placements classes), that it would not include the class in the state’s course directory. The letter said, “As presented, the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” The department’s office of articulation (which oversees accelerated programs for high school students) wrote that in the future, 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.”
The letter, with no name attached to it, did not cite which law the course violated or what in the curriculum was objectionable. The department did not respond to questions asking for more details. Last year, however, Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation that restricted how racism and other aspects of history can be taught in schools and workplaces. The law’s sponsors called it the “Stop WOKE Act” (officially named the “Individual Freedoms Act”). Among other things, it prohibits instruction that could make students feel responsibility for or guilt about the past actions of other members of their race.
The Advance Placement African-American studies course has been tried in 60 high schools across the country, including at least one in Florida. At all schools, students taking part in the course will not receive an A.P. exam score or college credit. The Advance Placement African-American studies course is pilot project from College Board.
Florida already prohibits schools from teaching “critical race theory,” an academic framework for understanding racism in the United States that was not taught in high schools but became a political rallying cry among parents and political activists on the right. The state also does not allow educators to teach the 1619 Project, a classroom program that was developed by the “New York Times” that sought to reframe the country’s history by putting the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the national narrative.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., a former chair of Harvard’s department of African and African American studies and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, was a consultant to the College Board as it developed the A.P. course. Gates said last year that he hoped the curriculum would not shy away from such topics — not as a framework, but as a way of studying different theories of the African American experience.
I read in the “New York Times” today (February 1) that the College Board stripped much of the subject matter that had angered the governor and other conservatives. The College Board purged the names of many Black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory, the queer experience and Black feminism. It cut out some politically fraught topics, like Black Lives Matter, from the formal curriculum. It added something new: “Black conservatism” is now offered as an idea for a research project.
David Coleman, the head of the College Board, said in an interview that the changes were all made for pedagogical reasons, not to bow to political pressure. “At the College Board, we can’t look to statements of political leaders,” he said. The changes, he said, came from “the input of professors” and “longstanding A.P. principles.”
Moreover, College Board officials said Wednesday that they had a time-stamped document showing that the final changes to the curriculum were made in December, before the Florida Department of Education sent its letter informing the College Board that it would not allow the course to be taught.
Mr. Coleman said, “We experimented with a lot of things including assigning secondary sources, and we found a lot of issues arose as we did.” Mr. Coleman added, “I think what is most surprising and powerful for most people is looking directly at people’s experience.” After the curriculum was released Wednesday, Bryan Griffin, the press secretary for Mr. DeSantis, said the state education department was reviewing it for “corrections and compliance with Florida law.”
In light of the politics, the College Board seemed to opt out of the politics. In its revised 234-page curriculum framework, the content on Africa, slavery, reconstruction and the civil rights movement remains largely the same. Also, there is content on redlining, discrimination and Afrofuturism, as well as stories of individual achievement and heroism. The study of contemporary topics, however, including Black Lives Matter, incarceration, queer life and the debate over reparations, is downgraded. The subjects are no longer part of the exam, and are simply offered on a list of options for a required research project. Even that list, in a nod to local laws, “can be refined by local states and districts.”
Let’s hope the states will teach American slavery factually, and parents will hand the history from generation to generation, like the Exodus story.