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Harvard Must Fight the Suffocation of AP African American Studies

By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

Following heavy criticism from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — a polarizing figure who once declared that his state was where “woke goes to die” — the College Board released an updated official curriculum for its new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies.

Governor DeSantis, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 2005, announced that he would ban the original curriculum after Florida state education officials described it as historically inaccurate and in violation of Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act.”

In the updated version, the works of seminal Black writers such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and bell hooks have been expunged from reading lists; contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter have been erased from official discussions; and topics such as intersectionality have been downgraded to the point of being nearly unrecognizable.

Unfortunately, this embattled AP course is just the tip of the iceberg. Governor DeSantis’s decision is one in a series of his ongoing efforts in Florida to eliminate so-called “ideological conformity” by culling diversity and equity programs from public colleges, appointing six new trustees (who, shockingly, conform to the same political ideology) in an attempt to restructure the New College of Florida, and restricting access to books on race in favor of a core curriculum celebrating “Western civilization.”

Given this context, DeSantis’s campaign against AP African American Studies is nothing less than a blatant attack on Black studies and academic freedom writ large, setting a dangerous precedent for curriculums around the nation.

Crucially, believing that students should learn about a certain perspective does not entail agreeing with that perspective. In our view, if you disagree with a perspective, it is certainly better to present and critique it rather than attempt to silence it altogether — a fundamental premise of free discourse and intellectual discovery that DeSantis fails to grasp.

Indeed, such not-so-subtle attempts at restricting discourse on race may pressure non-partisan institutions like the College Board to censor important legitimate intellectual perspectives out of fear of controversy. Given that many may view these institutions as neutral arbiters and hold their academic judgment in high regard, any appearance of capitulation to political pressure at the expense of intellectual discovery creates a chilling effect for Black studies nationwide.

Contrary to the explicit devaluation of African American studies by the Florida Department of Education (and its further suffocation by the College Board’s acquiescence), we want to affirm in the strongest terms: Black history is American history, and Black studies span a broad range of experiences, perspectives, and theories that each hold untold value — and are crucial to enrich and challenge our understanding of the world.

Black studies should not be restricted to the realm of higher education. Students should be exposed to this theory, especially during high school. Less than ten percent of class time in K-12 US history classes is spent studying Black history, leaving limited reliable alternatives for most students interested in perspectives beyond those that tend to dominate most historical narratives.

By the same token, it’s no coincidence that some of the authors purged from the curriculum, such as Angela Davis, spent their careers calling out white supremacist, capitalist, and patriarchal systems of oppression in the United States.

Even if the curricular changes were made for the pedagogical reason of prioritizing primary sources over secondhand analysis, as the College Board claims, this approach is fallacious. If AP classes are intended to mirror the rigor of a college level course, then an African American Studies course that lacks theoretical sources falls short of its Advanced Placement status. Black scholars, including Harvard professors Eveyln Brooks Higginbotham and Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., spent years advocating for and crafting the original curriculum; as such, the College Board should not have shied away from the original depth of AP African American Studies.

We might be more inclined to believe the College Board’s lofty pedagogical rhetoric if this weren’t its first time shifting an AP curriculum away from a focus on multi-ethnic studies. In 2018, the College Board changed its AP World History curriculum to begin in the year 1200 CE, slimming what was once a comprehensive study of the globe into a version with a Eurocentric perspective. Such moves further disincentivize students of color from taking AP courses, which act as critical stepping stones to higher education for marginalized groups.

We commend the Harvard faculty members who have spoken out against these changes and urge Harvard to do its part in the fight to protect academic freedom from attacks of the DeSantis variety by finally establishing an Ethnic Studies department — a response that is made only more necessary by the looming potential loss of affirmative action. Renewed institutional support for Ethnic and Black studies will not only offer students an opportunity to engage in discourse that may be suppressed in high schools but also encourage support for these embattled fields in American education at large.

As legal restrictions on what constitutes ‘valid’ historical knowledge multiply, and books continue to disappear from Florida educators’ shelves, the stakes are abundantly clear: Harvard has no time to lose.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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CORRECTION: February 17, 2023

A previous version of this story stated that the current AP World History curriculum begins in 1450 CE. In fact, the curriculum begins in 1200 CE.

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