Even as conservatives push statewide bans on the teaching of critical race theory or lessons on racism and other topics that might cause general discomfort to White students, the College Board is launching a very different sort of initiative. This fall, the organization is piloting a new AP course in African American studies in 60 U.S. high schools. The course, which was designed with input from K-12 teachers and professors across the country, will address African American life, culture and history.
These seemingly contradictory impulses in our education landscape are the result of a nation divided about what students should learn and what teachers should teach. On one side, conservative activists seek to stifle academic freedom by quelling curriculums that expose U.S. fault lines. On the other hand, social justice educators embrace a much more robust and full understanding of the United States, one that is rooted in the African American quest to show the centrality of Black Americans to U.S. life and history.
And this is nothing new. The nation’s public schools have long been caught in a tug of war over whether they should be used to conserve or disrupt existing social arrangements. Alternate efforts to constrict and expand academic freedom in the nation’s schools have been central to how politicians, educators and activists have tried to encourage social change or resist it.
With the onset of Jim Crow following the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that allowed for “separate but equal” public accommodations, African Americans did all they could to educate themselves despite state-sanctioned racism. As they contributed their time, talent and treasures to developing schools, they also created new curriculums that countered the continued belief in the inferiority of Black people and any thoughts of them as passive individuals. From early on, African American educators, leaders and community members saw academic freedom and the broadening of the curriculum as a primary force in the fight for social justice.
By the early 20th century, White schools began using textbooks that attempted to create a unified, graded curriculum, while telling a story of American history and culture centered on the heroic supremacy of White men.
But African American educators immediately pushed back against this curriculum. In 1915, Carter G. Woodson — the son of former enslaved people who completed his PhD in 1912 at Harvard while teaching in Washington, D.C. — began the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Later, Woodson created what would become Black History Month in an attempt to upend the white supremacist narratives infiltrating American schools. He also understood that academic freedom could be a powerful tool for confronting the central problem in U.S. schools, what historian Jarvis Givens has described as “the condemnation of Black life in school curriculum and ideology.” Such latitude would empower Black teachers to correct the biases and falsehoods in these new textbooks.
Across the Jim Crow South, Black teachers used multiple pedagogical methods to inspire Black students to their highest potential and to imagine a society in which they would be equal. They also created alternative texts to use in these lessons. Historically Black colleges and universities became hubs of activity for Black research, teaching and service — challenging narratives of inferiority produced by White scholars and pushing the bounds of academic freedom.
But as Black students desegregated White public schools in the South following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, they found themselves confronting institutional and interpersonal racism without the support of Black teachers who often lost their jobs because of desegregation. The bigotry, lack of support and racist curriculums they confronted propelled many of these students to action. By the late 1960s, Black students identified a broadened curriculum as a pathway to justice and protested for better schooling conditions, including the addition of Black history in the curriculum in places like Charlottesville and Philadelphia. In 1967, students in Philadelphia walked out of school to demand change — a moment historian Matthew Countryman has described as a catalyst for a movement to use curriculum to drive social change.
These fights to expand the curriculum not only occurred in K-12 schools, but also at predominantly White colleges and universities. Black student protests at the University of Chicago led to the formation of a committee charged with adding African American studies to the curriculum. The monumental 1968-69 strike at San Francisco State, “the longest student-led strike in the history of American higher education,” led to the establishment of the College of Ethnic Studies in 1969 and the school’s stated commitment to equity and social justice now reflected in its diverse student body.
In December 1968, Black students occupied the main administration building at Washington University in St. Louis. They also issued a Black Manifesto, which proclaimed: “The traditional education has not spoken and does not speak to the life of the Black man in America.” The student authors demanded “the chance to acquire knowledge relevant to our needs and the needs of our people. … We strongly recommend the same change for our white counterparts.” This activism, supported by academic freedom, led to the adoption of Black studies courses in 1969.
The press for academic freedom as social justice continued into the 1980s and 1990s as Black educational scholars and K-12 teachers called for multicultural education. James Banks, the father of multicultural education and an educational researcher, called for a curriculum that would expose students to new ideas and in the process reduce social inequality. Additional Black educational scholars such James Anderson, Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, Gloria Ladson-Billings and Vanessa Siddle Walker used their academic freedom to produce studies that pushed against the notions of Black people and children as deficient — which still permeated educational research, including teacher preparation and curriculum.
But the efforts to reshape curriculum provoked resistance by those who insisted on students needing to understand the standard White-oriented Westernized curriculum. Of those who sought to broaden the state of knowledge, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger wrote, “They have filled the air with recrimination and rancor and have remarkably advanced the fragmentation of American life.”
Today, perhaps more than ever, Black scholars and Black teachers continue to press for academic freedom and use those rights to fight for social justice and equity. Indeed, the study of African Americans, whether in K-12 schools or higher education, has raised levels of understanding and consciousness about African Americans’ experiences and contributions despite systemic racism in American history and current reality. Even amid the current attacks on the teaching of race and racism, we find ourselves in 2022 with increased numbers of Black studies programs in higher education, including a number that offer PhDs, and we continue to see students, teachers, scholars and activists demanding a more expansive, inclusive and nuanced curriculum in K-12 classrooms.
The introduction of the African American studies Advanced Placement course reflects a willingness to grapple with a complicated, nuanced understanding of American life, even as some critics try to push for a vision of American history and society that is narrow and limited. In the push to expand what educators can teach and students can learn, African Americans today and in the past lead the charge for academic freedom and reveal it to be one of academia’s most potent tools for social justice.
This essay is the 10th and final one in the Freedom to Learn series sponsored by PEN America, providing historical context for controversies surrounding free expression in education today.