“The new course will undergo a pilot program in 60 schools, as the debate over how to teach history becomes ever more divisive.
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The College Board is jumping into the fray over how to teach the history of race in the United States with a new Advanced Placement course and exam on African American studies that will be tried out in about 60 high schools this fall.
The course is multidisciplinary, addressing not just history but civil rights, politics, literature, the arts, even geography. If the pilot program pans out, it will be the first course in African American studies for high school students that is considered rigorous enough to allow students to receive credit and advanced placement at many colleges across the country.
The plan for an Advanced Placement course is a significant step in acknowledging the field of African American studies, more than 50 years after what has been credited as the first Black studies department was started after a student strike at San Francisco State College in 1968, said 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.
“In the history of any field, in the history of any discipline in the academy, there are always milestones indicating the degree of institutionalization,” said Dr. Gates, who is a consultant to the project along with a colleague, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. “These are milestones which signify the acceptance of a field as being quote-unquote ‘academic’ and quote-unquote ‘legitimate.’”
He likened it to the publication of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, in 1997, and of the African American National Biography, first published in 2008.
The College Board declined to release a sample syllabus or other content for the course, or to name the 60 schools or say what states they were located in.
But Marlon Williams-Clark, a social studies teacher in Florida who is part of the pilot program, said that among the subjects were how African American studies became a field of study at the college level in the 1960s, the strength of early African kingdoms and cultures, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the lives of enslaved people and what they did to resist, and moving toward the Harlem Renaissance, Black power and Black pride, the civil rights movement, Black feminism and intersectionality.
Students will take a pilot exam but will not receive scores or college credit, according to the College Board.
The course comes at a precarious time for the teaching of history, and in particular, Black history, and could clash with the political mood and even with laws in some states.
Across the country this year, 36 states have introduced 137 bills seeking to restrict teaching, mainly on race but also on gender and history, up from 22 states and 54 bills last year, according to a report by PEN America, a free speech group. Most of the bills have been driven by Republican legislators.
Many Republican politicians have made a piñata out of “critical race theory,” an academic theory that examines how racism is embedded in institutions but has become a vaguely defined buzzword among parents and political activists who say that students are being dictated to by teachers who do not share their values.
In Washington last year, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and more than three dozen Republican senators protested a proposed Biden administration rule promoting education programs that address how racism is embedded in society, calling it “divisive nonsense.”
“Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil,” the senators wrote in a letter to the education secretary. In Tennessee, education rules prohibit teaching a long list of “concepts,” including the notion that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”
Eric Welch, a Republican board of education member in Williamson County, Tenn., said that depending on the content, which has not been released, he could have qualms about the proposed AP course. “It would bother me as a school board member to have any course material that was agenda-driven,” he said. He added, “We’re trying to educate, not indoctrinate.”
He said that he didn’t like the state law either, not because of the content, but because it was micromanaging how local schools should teach.
The College Board, which also administers the SAT, said in a statement that the course had been in the works for a decade.
With the caveat that the course is still in development, and that he only plays an advisory role in determining its content, Dr. Gates said that he was “sincerely hoping” that the course would not ignore teaching about controversial subjects, like critical race theory or the 1619 Project.
The 1619 Project, developed by The New York Times, 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. Dr. Gates said that rather than being part of the theoretical framework of the course itself, those topics could be part of a unit “teaching different theories of the African American experience.”
There could, for example, “be a course on Marxist approaches to race,” Dr. Gates said, adding, “and most certainly I would imagine something on critical race theory and maybe something on the 1619 Project.”
He said: “This hypothetical unit would discuss the controversies over different interpretive frameworks used to analyze the history of race in America. I am certainly not advocating employing those theories as interpretive frameworks for the course itself. That’s a big difference.”
If all goes well, the full A.P. course will be available to all high schools that want it in the 2024-25 school year.
Mr. Williams-Clark, the Florida social studies teacher, works in a state that prohibits schools from teaching critical race theory and the 1619 Project.
Mr. Williams-Clark, who teaches at Florida State University Schools, a laboratory charter, said he sticks to state standards for history and literature and was not worried about falling afoul of laws that aim to restrict education about race.
“I think people need to understand that critical race theory is not an element of this course,” Mr. Williams-Clark said. “As far as the 1619 Project, this course is not that either. There might be elements that cross over. But this course is a comprehensive, mainstream course about the African American experience.”
As for recent events like the killing of George Floyd by the police and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, he said that while they might not explicitly be in the curriculum, he anticipated that they would come up as students made connections between the past and the present.
Mr. Williams-Clark said he was “surprised and not surprised” that it had taken such a long time after the rise of African American studies departments to establish this course.
“The way I look at it is that often history is told from the perspective of the winner,” he said. “We’re getting to a point in our country’s history where diverse voices are being valued, and that’s what this course does.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.“