THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 23, 2023
Tomorrow, Gates gone wrong: What are public school students being taught about our American history?
What are public school students in Florida being taught? How about in other states? What are they being taught in honors classes? What are the other kids being taught?
What are they taught about the history of the Americas before 1619, including the history of the Americas before European contact? What are they taught about the brutal American history which was launched in the seminal year we just mentioned—"before the Mayflower," as a well-known book instructively fashioned it way back in 1962?
So many questions, so little time! Also, so little interest in anything but current tribal warfare!
That said, we're going to make an admission! When we watched Joy Reid interview three Florida high chool students last week, we wondered how much they already know about American history.
Good God, that first kid was impressive! The transcript of her remarks on that day can't even begin to convey her seriousness, her impressive sense of purpose:
REID (2/15/23): So talk to me, Victoria, about the importance of taking AP classes and why you would want to take this AP African American Studies class.
MCQUEEN: AP [classes] have opened my eyes to an array of new information. When I took honors in middle school, and the friends I have in honors classes now, we go farther back in history, we go deeper into history. And if we had the option to take African American history at the AP level, we also would get that deeper knowledge that you don't get baseline, and that you have to find deep in the Internet to get that knowledge, because it's not easily accessible at our schools.
We were struck by Victoria McQueen's composure, by her seriousness of purpose. To see this exchange as it actually happened, you can just click here, then search on this student's name.
Still and all, we wondered how much McQueen and the other two students already knew about the frequently brutal history of our floundering nation.
They want to take the College Board's new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies. We wondered about the amount of knowledge to which the contents of that AP course would be added.
Along the way, we've also occasionally thought about the kinds of things, major and minor, which can (and sometimes do) go wrong at such well-intentioned moments like the moment we're currently in.
It's true! Sometimes, things can (and do) go sideways at deeply fraught junctures like this. Below, we'll link you to an interesting account of one recent (and extreme) such episode.
First, though, let's tip our cap to the College Borad once again, and let's look at an overview of their new AP course.
Once again, we offer three cheers—or possibly just two and a half—to the College Board. In the recent statement reported below, they wisely said that they have no intention of telling high school kids what they should think about the history in question:
MECKLER (1/19/23): Revisions [to the AP course] will be made based on early experience, and the course frameworks “often change significantly,” the College Board said...
The College Board statement said that the class does not aim to push any point of view and depends on students immersing themselves in primary sources.
“The course is designed to encourage students to examine each theme from a variety of perspectives, without ideology, in line with the field’s tradition of debates,” the College Board said. “Students will encounter evidence, weigh competing viewpoints and come to their own conclusions. AP students are never required to agree with a particular opinion or adopt a particular ideology, but they are expected to analyze different perspectives.”
More than two cheers for the College Board for advancing this basic notion. For the record, this is the current outline of the course's five segments, with much more detail available here:
Unit 1: Origins of the African Diaspora / ~8th century CE – 16th century CE
Unit 2: Freedom, Enslavement, and Resistance / ~16th century CE to 1865 CE
Unit 3: The Practice of Freedom / 1865 – 1960s CE
Unit 4: Movements and Debates / 1960s – present
A lot of ground will be covered, presumably including the meaning of the term "CE." That said, the outline suggests how much time should be spent on each of those five components, and the recommended allotments add up to 28 weeks.
That's much less than a full school year. People, we're just saying!
At any rate, a great deal of brutal and ugly behavior takes place in the history under review—certainly so from the start of the African Diaspora onward. These events can be fashioned a hundred different ways, depending on the wider contexts into which such events are placed.
(We well recall our fifth-grade students asking us the following question when the TV show Roots first appeared: How could people have been willing to treat other people that way? There's no perfect answer to such questions. That particular question can be answered in a variety of ways.)
As our current tribal warfare unfolds, we often see highly simplistic statements about the way such history should be taught, even to grade school students. Instead, we may be inclined to turn to the weapons of war, and those weapons include the rampant use of dumbnified talking points.
How should this brutal American history be taught to Advanced Placement students? Also, here's a question you'll never see asked:
How should this brutal history be taught to the vast bulk of our public school students—to the many good, decent kids who won't be in the honors or AP courses?
How should this history be taught in third grade, or to today's fifth grade students? Also, how should this brutal history be taught in line with the College Board's professed ambition—in line with its stated desire to let American high school students "come to their own conclusions" about the material involved in its new AP course?
We hope that kids, from the early grades on, are learning about the history of the Americas before 1492. From the early 1600s on, the project of presenting this history becomes a great deal more challenging—and yes, given the brutality of the history, things certainly can go wrong.
Things can go wrong in major ways. More commonly, things can perhaps go wrong in ways which may be more minor—but when we're engaged in a great tribal war, we may tend to rush past such matters.
What can go wrong when we teach the truth? For one example of what we mean, consider the experience Professor Lloyd recently described in this essay for the online journal, Compact.
Who the heck is Professor Lloyd? You're asking an excellent question! In a recent interview with Lloyd for The Atlantic, Conor Friederdorf introduced him in the manner shown:
FRIEDERSDORF (2/17/23): Vincent Lloyd is a Black professor at Villanova University, where he directed the Black-studies program, leads workshops on anti-racism and transformative justice, and has published books on anti-Black racism, including Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination. Until recently, he was dismissive of criticism of the way that the left talks about race in America. Then he had an unsettling experience while teaching a group of high-school students as part of a highly selective summer program that is convened and sponsored annually by the Telluride Association.
Before, he had quickly rejected the linguist and social commentator John McWhorter’s argument that anti-racism is a new religion. “Last summer,” Lloyd wrote, “I found anti-racism to be a perversion of religion: I found a cult.”
For ourselves, we think McWhorter goes wildly wrong when he insists that "anti-racism" doesn't resemble a religion—when he says it literally is one.
That said, Professor Lloyd may have gone McWhorter one better with his reference to a cult.
Friedersdorf didn't pull his capsule bio of Lloyd out of thin air. Here's the way Lloyd describes himself as he starts to present his account of a seminar he recently taught, or tried to teach, to some extremely high-powered high school students:
LLOYD (2/10/23): This might be just another lament about “woke” campus culture, and the loss of traditional educational virtues. But the seminar topic was “Race and the Limits of Law in America.” Four of the 6 weeks were focused on anti-black racism (the other two were on anti-immigrant and anti-indigenous racism). I am a black professor, I directed my university’s black-studies program, I lead anti-racism and transformative-justice workshops, and I have published books on anti-black racism and prison abolition. I live in a predominantly black neighborhood of Philadelphia, my daughter went to an Afrocentric school, and I am on the board of our local black cultural organization.
Like others on the left, I had been dismissive of criticisms of the current discourse on race in the United States. But now my thoughts turned to that moment in the 1970s when leftist organizations imploded, the need to match and raise the militancy of one’s comrades leading to a toxic culture filled with dogmatism and disillusion. How did this happen to a group of bright-eyed high school students?
In his lengthy essay, Lloyd describes the intervention of a charismatic young woman with very strong political views. She too was involved in this high-powered instructional program, and the role she played led Lloyd to revise his prevailing views:
LLOYD: The feature of a cult that seems to be missing from this story is a charismatic leader, enforcing the separation of followers from the world, creating emotional vulnerability, and implanting dogma. Enter Keisha. A recent graduate of an Ivy League university, mentored by a television-celebrity black intellectual, Keisha introduced herself as a black woman who grew up poor and “housing vulnerable,” whose grandmother’s limbs had been broken by white supremacists, and who had just spent four years of college teaching in prisons and advocating for prison abolition. She told the class that she had majored in black studies, had been nurtured by black feminists (though her famous mentor is a man), and she was planning to devote her life to transforming the academy in the direction of black justice.
According to Lloyd's account, things went aggressively sideways from there. The experience led him to think of that moment in the 1970s "when leftist organizations imploded."
Very few students who take the AP history course will have the kind of extreme experience Lloyd describes in his essay. Quite possibly, no one will!
That said, the current discussion of the new AP course pays little attention to the various ways instruction in such difficult historical material can perhaps go slightly sideways, or can even go somewhat wrong.
Instead, the discussion tends to go sideways itself, condemning our adult citizens—and our high school students—to barrages of tribal talking points and to reams of name-calling and insults.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but our current discussion of this topic is nothing to write home about. And now, they've even got Professors Gates! We'll examine that improbable statement tomorrow.
"We must not be enemies," one president said. Also, and to state the obvious, Professor Gates is a good and decent person. In what possible way could a person like him have gone wrong?
Tomorrow: Gates discusses DeSantis