Under right-wing pressure, a history course changes the course of its own history
A new Advanced Placement course in African American history has caused controversy before students have even had a chance to take the class. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his On My Mind commentary, says it’s part of a campaign to bend the arc of history the wrong way.
Here is a sad recurring theme over the past few years: Every time we get to Black History Month, the news seems to be about people trying to whitewash Black history.
The latest case involves the College Board, the group that puts together the Advanced Placement classes that allow high-school students to get college credit. Now, the College Board has its own problems, mostly involving the ongoing debate over whether the SAT—something else they oversee—is a fair measure of student ability. They also pay out million-dollar salaries to their executives even though they’re officially a nonprofit.
That aside, the board recently designed a new course in African American history. But once an early draft leaked out, a bunch of folks got upset, because the course material felt a little uncomfortable.
The material dealt with ideas such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the debate over whether Black Americans should get some sort of reparations for our country’s history of slavery. It also discussed critical race theory — the notion that racism is built into America’s very structures.
These are controversial ideas, for sure. They’re also the very ideas that a student taking what is supposed to be a college-level class in African American history should expect to deal with. Those ideas don’t just animate that history—they’re some of the ways to grapple with it in the here and now. There’s not much point in learning history otherwise.
But Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida announced that he would ban the class from Florida schools. That would likely lead to other states doing the same—there are already 20 states, including South Carolina, that have some sort of law on the books regarding things schools can’t teach about race. So somewhere along the way, the College Board changed the materials for the class.
There’s some debate about when on the timeline it happened, or how much the class has changed. But it’s clear that the College Board would have suffered, financially and otherwise, if they hadn’t altered the course.
This is all part of a larger battle that many right-wing conservatives are fighting to make public education less about a clear-eyed look at reality, and more about a vision of the country run through more filters than an Instagram photo.
It’s fine, and important, to talk about the values of Western civilization. But it’s useless to talk about those values without pointing out where the leaders of that civilization have fallen short, and how they adapted, or didn’t, to a changing world. It also doesn’t make sense to ignore other civilizations that have different values, and how those values came to be.
In short, show this country and this world as what it is: a complicated place. The problem is, a lot of people don’t want the world to be complicated, and they will vote for people who would turn history education into a case of “the less you know, the better.”
You know the old saying: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It feels like the deeper condemnation should be for those who refuse to remember our real past, and try to keep the next generation from ever learning it.
Tommy Tomlinson’s "On My Mind" column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at email@example.com.
SUPPORT LOCAL NEWS
From local government and regional climate change to student progress and racial equity, WFAE’s newsroom covers the stories that matter to you. Our nonprofit, independent journalism is essential to improving our communities. Your support today will ensure this journalism endures tomorrow. Thank you for making a contribution of any amount.