The College Board that certifies Advanced Placement high school curricula needs to go back and study history. Appeasement of bullies and demagogues is a strategy for failure.
Yet that is exactly the path upon which the College Board appears to have embarked. On Wednesday, the first day of Black History Month, the Board shamefully announced that it had revised its Advanced Placement curriculum in African American History as demanded by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the wannabe successor to former President Donald J. Trump.
As the New York Times story on the Board’s action described it, the new curriculum was “stripped of much of the subject matter that had angered the governor and other conservatives.”
“Big win for DeSantis,” the conservative National Review crowed. The right has embraced cancel culture.
Notably, the cancellation was not limited to subject matter. According to the Times, the “Board purged the names of many Black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory, the queer experience and . . . [and removed] politically fraught topics, like Black Lives Matter, from the formal curriculum.”
Among those whose names were deleted: Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker and Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
One wonders if removing those eminent Americans’ images from photographs is next, like what Stalin famously did in the 1930s to the rivals he had eliminated as he attempted to rewrite Soviet history.
No one should have to tell the College Board that you don’t stop ideas by deleting experts’ and authors’ names, and you can’t stop curiosity by banishing or shrinking whole subjects of interest and inquiry in a syllabus.
As Charles Yale, an Omaha high school junior, wrote in a letter to the Times yesterday, “Nobody deserves to have their experience or perspective left out. . . . History isn’t meant to be watered down.
The Board, of course, denied that it had bowed to political pressure. To be sure, the revised AP curriculum is still an advance on typical high school history studies, as it includes such subjects as Black resistance to slavery and discrimination.
But you would have to be living in an Arctic snow cave to believe that conservative rage over the Black Lives Matter movement had nothing to do with deleting it from a high school history syllabus that includes other contemporary African American subjects. The same goes for mentioning only once the topic of “reparations” for four centuries of slavery—and even that mention is merely as “an optional project topic.”
To understand the seeming danger here, anyone familiar with totalitarianism has more than Stalin to rely on. The lead-up to World War II tells us that caving to demands of would-be strongmen is sure to backfire. Dictatorial types are never satisfied by what they win without a fight; the next demand soon follows.
In Munich in 1938, as any high schooler who’s studied modern European history knows, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain conceded without a fight Nazi Germany’s “right” to annex the neighboring Czech territory known as the “Sudetenland.”
In exchange, Chamberlain drafted a “non-aggression pact” with Germany, then flew home to celebrate “Peace in our Time.” The time of peace lasted exactly 11 months. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and plunged the globe into World War II.
One doesn’t, however, have to look overseas to learn from history that demagogues are not pacified by concessions.
In 1953 and 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower quietly tolerated Republican Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare fear-mongering as McCarthy’s profile rose and his terror campaign destroyed reputations and lives. Only when McCarthy attacked the former general’s beloved Army did Eisenhower greenlight the McCarthy-Army hearing counterattack that brought McCarthy down.
Had the President spoken out from the start, who knows how much damage to American institutions and private citizens could have been avoided?
Today, the College Board seems not to have grasped this most basic lesson of history. Educational psychologists affirm the same teaching: Immediate resistance to bullies is crucial because they “target . . . vulnerable groups” and thrive on the support of enablers.
Even schoolchildren learn quickly that unless you stand up to the tough guy who takes your cookie, he’ll be back tomorrow for your juice box, apple, and sandwich—maybe even your lunchbox if it’s fire enough.
The College Board seems unwilling to be the adult in the classroom. Parents, school administrators, school boards, and students must speak out with force. Whatever boycott or focus on the funding sources of the nonprofit College Board will be effective should be organized. Its announcement Wednesday is only the last word on this subject if ordinary people allow it to be.
The study of history—all history—is central to what allows us to become whole, and to develop as active participants in democracy, with knowledge and the skills of critical thinking.
The College Board has short-changed freedom of thought for the next generation of high school students. It has also helped erode our pluralistic future, and that erosion will deepen and spread unless citizens act to stop it.