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 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 free speech group PEN America. 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, Tennessee, 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.”
With the caveat that the course is still in development, and that he only plays an advisory role in determining its content, 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. 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,” 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 AP course will be available to all high schools that want it in the 2024-25 school year.