AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Politics has often been compared to “sausage-making:” a process which would horrify most voters if they ever learned its intricacies. The same could be said for modern curriculum construction for K-12 education – something Americans have seen clearly in recent days amid the media outrage over the decision of the Florida Department of Education to reject curriculum for an Advanced Placement course in African American studies.
Critics of the move have accused the Florida DOE and Governor Ron DeSantis of trying to “ban” African American history. But as DeSantis and many conservatives pointed out, the framework of the College Board’s course curriculum was actually a thinly-veiled cover for left-wing ideologies – including lessons in things like “Intersectionality and Activism” and “Black Queer Studies.”
The charges that DeSantis and the Florida DOE are trying to “rewrite history” were absurd, not least because Florida already mandates instruction in African American history in all of its own schools. The state objected to the inclusion of material that seemed to run afoul of its recent laws against sexual and racially charged content, with DeSantis wondering aloud why “Queer Studies” were part of African American history. This in turn prompted charges of bigotry.
Nonetheless, DeSantis’s question was a good one, and one which his critics would have been well-advised to spend more time considering.
An important distinction that most involved in the debate have missed is that the course in question is not one on African American “history,” but rather African American “studies.” Because AP courses are designed around covering the key issues and works within a given field, an “African American history” course, by definition, would cover the major controversies and works of historians regarding African American history. By contrast, “African American Studies” is a separate and amorphous field at universities, one of the multitude of “studies” departments which allow institutions to bypass normal academic rigor to include almost any subject they wish under the banner of “interdisciplinary education.”
“Studies” departments, most infamously “gender studies,” have arisen in reaction to what many left-wing activists term “gatekeeping” in traditional fields such as history, but what academics would refer to as rigor. While the overall climate is without a doubt left-wing, academic history is premised upon the idea that an academic is trying to prove an argument to be true. They will research sources, marshal the evidence, and then contend with detractors. While there are incentives to make dubious claims, the objective is nevertheless to at least try and prove them to be correct. It would be considered disgraceful for even the most left-leaning “academic” to respond to criticism by declaring “I found a source which said something else.” They would be expected to justify why they believe that source is correct, and others are not.
Nonetheless, that is precisely how Nikole Hannah-Jones, the author of the infamous 1619 Project, chose to respond to criticism of its more dubious claims, in particular suggesting that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery and that Lord Pakenham, a leading slaveholder, was somehow an abolitionist.
When challenged by leading liberal historians, Hannah-Jones’s defense was not to engage with their evidence, but to assert that she had evidence someone had made this claim somewhere. She did not attempt to argue that her argument was true or correct. She merely asserted that because her claims were also made by someone else, they were equally worthy of respect as truth. It was this, more than the absurdity of the claims, or the left-wing bias, which revealed the 1619 Project to be pure ideological propaganda.
This is hardly surprising. After all, Hannah-Jones was a journalist, not a historian, and one of the tenants of modern journalism is the same as CRT-infused “studies”. You start with a thesis, and then find sources who will provide quotations to support it. The idea that you might research sources first, before forming a conclusion, is seen as reactionary gatekeeping. In fact, leftists like Hannah-Jones claim, efforts to gatekeep are themselves abuses of the power-structure, which is why figures like Abigail Shrier were driven from their jobs when they tried to assert editorial control. The answer to why “Queer Theory” or the film Black Panther are included in the proposed AP African American studies curriculum is because the College Board wouldn’t dare to police what was and was not African American “studies”.
The College Board’s decision to produce an African American Studies AP course rather than an African American History course was itself an example of the left’s ideological capture of academia, and the prevalence of leftist ideologies like Critical Race Theory. A historical narrative would have to reflect chronological themes, and those do exist within the African American studies proposal. But by making it about the field of “studies,” the College Board was able to include more or less whatever they wanted provided they could find one professor somewhere who insisted it was important to African American “studies”. Hence such gems as lessons on “Intersectionality and Activism,” “Queer Theory,” “Black Feminist Literary Thought,” “Afrocentricity in Black Studies,” “The Movement for Black Lives” (which provides instruction in the BLM movement), and “The Reparations Movement.”
It would be wrong to highlight African American Studies as the only “studies.” Florida officials pointed out worries that if they approved this curriculum they would be soon faced with “Queer Studies,” “Women’s Studies,” “Latinx Studies,” and a host of others. This move seems likely to delay those, or force the College Board to produce actual academic offerings.
This won’t save academia, however. The College Board is merely reflecting trends within universities where no less than 58% of all postings for history faculty in 2021 were for ethnic or racial “studies” positions. It would be one thing if this was motivated by a desire to have faculty teach courses about the history of understudied regions and periods. Instead, it seems to be part of a wider war on academic standards which are seen as racist in much the same way educational institutions are declaring war on standardized tests that are seen as favoring Asians.
Nikole Hannah-Jones’s bid for a tenure track professorship along with the battle to push the 1619 Project in schools is reflected in the CRT-inspired agenda of the African American Studies curriculum. If Hannah-Jones, a journalist, established that she was not just equally but more qualified to define the historical curriculum as academic historians, then it would be a triumph for the left’s own assertion that rigor does not produce truth, and truth is what is morally advantageous to teach.
Florida’s rejection of the AP African American Studies course provides an insight into a wider struggle to redefine academia using Critical Race Theory and other left-wing ideologies. The battle will have to be fought there if there is hope to reverse the current trends.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.