High schoolers need exposure to ideas in African American studies
As Black History Month begins, our education governor’s Education Department says it’s reviewing an advanced placement course in African American studies that’s being tried out in two Arkansas schools as part of a pilot program in 60 high schools nationwide.
The Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education is asking questions of the nonprofit that developed the college-level course for high school students to determine whether the course violates Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ executive orders, specifically one that prohibits “indoctrination and critical race theory in schools.”
You may have heard of the course previously because Florida’s Department of Education rejected teaching the course in Florida schools because it “significantly lacks educational value” and violates state law banning the teaching of certain concepts regarding race.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis upheld his reactionary bonafides by supporting his department’s rejection of the course, which, like many other AP courses, is offered to qualified students who want to earn college credit while in high school. In other words, only students who want to pursue a challenging, college-level curriculum will take AP courses. No one is required to take it.
The course was developed by the Advanced Placement Program of the College Board, a 123-year-old nonprofit whose mission is to expand access to higher education. If you’ve ever taken the ACT or SAT exams, you can thank the College Board for the torture.
On Wednesday, the Board released details of the official guidelines for the African American Studies course that replaces the pilot course now being taught in Arkansas and that Florida rejected.
The official 234-page framework makes changes in some of the curriculum contained in the preliminary course. The New York Times and other news outlets interpreted the changes as a response to criticism from DeSantis and other conservatives.
The College Board responded to the Times’ story in a press release titled “How the New York Times got it wrong on AP African American Studies” saying the newspaper’s article “is rife with inaccuracies.”
It’s a shame the College Board, which has a long history of approaching its mission with academic rigor, felt it necessary to jump into the culture war fray. But such is the milieu in which we swim.
Arkansas and reason
Which leads us to Arkansas, where the teacher of the African American Studies pilot course at Little Rock’s Central High defended the course, telling the school’s student newspaper, The Tiger, that the course doesn’t violate Sanders’ executive order “by any stretch of the imagination.”
Think about it. A veteran teacher, and former charter school administrator, who knows the material included in the course, believes students are being taught history, the unvarnished history, of the lives of Black Americans. She rejects the idea that her students are being indoctrinated or being taught “critical race theory.”
That aside, indoctrinating children is what schools have been doing for generations. The early purpose of a public education was to socialize children into someone’s idea of a monolithic American culture. When I was in seventh grade, we were required to spend part of a semester reading and discussing You Can Trust the Communists (to be Communists), a beloved piece of right-wing propaganda from the Soviet-threat era that still resonates with some on the extreme right. (I think I still have my copy.)
Today the indoctrination I see involving schools is the attempt by a vocal group of reactionaries to make sure students are taught only the social and religious values those reactionaries approve of.
Schools are supposed to indoctrinate (that is, teach) students on how to develop critical thinking skills by exposing them to a variety of ideas they might not encounter otherwise. Critical thinking is the ability to use reason to work through all facets of an argument or problem to arrive at something like truth.
It’s my hope that Arkansas’ scrutiny of the AP African American Studies course results in nothing more than clearing away the cloud that hangs over it now because of the erroneous characterization emanating from the fever swamps of Florida.
We can only hope that Gov. Sanders uses her powers of critical thinking to come to the same conclusion – that this curriculum exposes students to information they need about African Americans through history, art, literature and geography and has nothing to do with indoctrination.