Terry H. Schwadron
Jan. 23, 2023
Once again, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has burnished his anti-“woke” campaign image by stepping into high school curriculum choices and tossing out any Advanced Placement African American Studies classes. The move has been widely criticized, but not examined for why it is supposed to be politically advantageous.
Despite endorsement of the courses by the national College Board, Florida’s Department of Education says that the course content is “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” Actually, DeSantis likely just guaranteed himself a mention in most AP African American courses for poorly veiled continuing racism.
It is a weird decision, dripping with partisan political and racial interference, though perfectly in line with a continuing DeSantis effort to restrict learning about race and identity. Just last year, DeSantis, who wants to be president, signed bills to restrict how racism can be taught in history classes and workplaces, for example, and DeSantis has taken on corporate diversity training programs as wrong-headed and risking a state hammer.
AP courses — something traditionally sought after but not required by brighter students willing to work at a college-level class while in high school — often give successful students a step ahead in college applications and the chance to skip introductory college classes. The content is reviewed and overseen by the College Board, which offers exams on the curriculum.
In Florida, the AP course on African American history has now been declared is not “historically accurate” and in violation of state law.
There are multiple questions here:
— What makes the Florida governor a better judge of curriculum content than the College Board made up of educators?
— What’s wrong with the courses, in DeSantis’ view? His state agency says there are examples of what it calls “the woke indoctrination” of students that would violate state laws restricting how race can be taught in the classroom, which seems to mean authors who argue that there is systemic racism in the country.
— Indeed, why is this a matter for the governor altogether? Maybe getting rid of guns and drugs in school would be more appropriate targets. When is interference in curriculum abuse of power?
— And, in the end, other than what can only be seen as a racist-tinged policy, is this deemed a good idea for political popularity.
Opposition Without Explanation
The letter to the College Board suggests that the law the course violates the so-called Stop WOKE Act that prohibits instruction that could make students feel responsibility for or guilt about the past actions of other members of their race. The agency cited inclusion of writers who explore subjects like Black queer studies, Black feminist literary thought, the reparations movement and how different forms of bias build on one another.
The College Board responded that this multidisciplinary course is in a pilot phase over a few years to look at history, civil rights, politics, literature, the arts, geography, and an understanding of the debate over Critical Race Theory that looks as racism as a systemic issue. It is not taught in high school. Currently, the AP African American Studies course is being taught at 60 schools nationwide; the College Board plans to make it widely accessible by the 2024–2025 school year.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is not taught in high school anywhere, though in Florida it is specifically rejected as a possibility.
In other words, it is about learning, as are other advanced placement courses, and specifically learning about how to integrate various disciplines.
There are AP courses in Florida on European History, Art History, Japanese, German, Italian and Spanish Language and Culture.
Apparently, they can be taught without whatever DeSantis sees as historical bias. Gee, do you think the Japanese course mentions that America locked up Japanese Americans in isolated military camps during World War II — a historical fact that might make someone feel bad to learn?
Black scholars are among a wide swath of educators finding issue with DeSantis’ judgments about exactly what does and does not belong in a school curriculum. DeSantis’ education department has rejected dozens of math textbooks, claiming that they promote incorporation of social-emotional learning and critical race theory along with rote repetition of math formulas.
If this rejectionist policy is straight politics with only a veneer of educational masking, it still does not answer the question of how it helps DeSantis politically. After all, he is undertaking this effort towards promoting an image that he will want to put on the national stage.
If anything, DeSantis already has all the right-leaning votes he wants. His polarizing culture warrior stance has successfully won him re-election to make Florida “the land of liberty and the land of sanity.”
DeSantis must think there are more book-burners out there in the electorate than people who believe in democracy and personal choice. I know few people who want an authoritarian leader who wants to tell us what to teach, what to read, and what medical decisions we must take. It’s an echo he is hearing from a closed rightist media-fed container.
Any calculation of national politics should suggest that he needs to persuade people like me that he is a thoughtful and intelligent guy rather than a kind of cardboard cut-out right-winger with very restrictive ideas about what should pass as acceptable debate about race in America.
Certainly, DeSantis wants to be seen as an ideological leader among Republicans, particularly at a time when Donald Trump faces protracted legal issues and the Washington party leaders find themselves in legislative disarray. Apparently, he wants to strike early and often to maintain a lead role as Trump alternative.
The recent elections show once again that it is independents and proponents of moderation in politics who are deciding elections. That is what drives a win beyond the committed right-wing.
DeSantis was in the headlines again this week for political hypocrisy in turning to the very same corporations for fund-raising that he had excoriated for opposing his same-sex restrictions. It is easy to conclude that DeSantis governs solely to promote himself and not on behalf of a diverse set of voters and residents.
This denial for an AP class on America’s Black history and culture is a move that simply doubles down again on a blinders view on the American experience.
It is hard to defend a policy that denies learning as a good unto itself.