At his blog at Insider Higher Ed, University of Texas American historian Steven Mintz offers a brief review of both the AP African American Studies course and the American Historical Review‘s forum on the 1619 Project. His take on AP African American Studies is now the best analysis I have seen.
Here is Mintz:
…The current AP African American Studies framework—234 pages long, divided into four sections, Origins of the African Diaspora; Freedom, Enslavement and Resistance; The Practice of Freedom; and Movements and Debates—certainly looks comprehensive. Its focus on primary sources surely makes sense, both pedagogically and politically. While I don’t recognize the names of all the framework’s contributors, those I do know—like Daina Ramey Berry, Henry Louis Gates and John Thornton—are among the academy’s premier scholars in their areas of specialization. In other words, the framework is anything but an amateurish venture.
The AP framework was certainly well intended. I’m sure many contributors felt that giving Black studies AP status would elevate the field and give it the recognition it deserves. But the result has been an unnecessary political ruckus that may well set back ethnic studies at the high school level for the considerable future.
Of course, the entire AP-precollege industry is problematic. Top colleges often ignore AP scores and require students to take a placement test. A profit-making enterprise, AP classes (like early-college courses) have become a way for states like mine to reduce college costs.
Given the AP’s importance, let me do my best to evaluate the African American Studies framework. Critical engagement is at the lifeblood of the academic enterprise, and as a U.S. historian I believe I have a duty, indeed a responsibility, to respectfully analyze works that speak to my own areas of research.
Obviously, the College Board set itself up for a fall. The initial curriculum draft made it all too easy for politically motivated conservative critics to attack the framework as agenda-driven. Had the drafters included a wider range of voices in its concluding section, the framework would have been much harder to attack.
But there are some real issues that need to be raised irrespective of your ideological leanings.
1. Are high school teachers sufficiently qualified and trained to teach the curriculum at a college level? I, for one, believe that college-level courses should be taught by instructors who have training and credentials comparable to those of instructors at four-year institutions. Even at community colleges, I think accreditors should insist that instructors be at least ABD, with a specialization in the areas they are teaching. After all, there’s no shortage of supply. Just ask yourself: Without sufficient graduate-level training in sub-Saharan African history, how can a teacher effectively respond to student questions?
2. Does the curriculum reflect the most recent scholarly thinking? At the risk of some hyperbole, one could argue that the framework (especially after the recent deletions) reflects the state of Black studies and African American history circa 1980. The thrust of subsequent scholarship has been much more comparative, with a greater stress on areas initially colonized by Spain, on Black political agency, on the Black role in reshaping all aspects of American culture, including American ideals of freedom—and especially on the reasons why inequalities persist despite the great legislative achievements and judicial decisions of the civil rights era.
Since 1980, many important studies, by scholars like Ira Berlin, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Jane Landers and Philip D. Morgan, have given slavery in what’s now the United States a genuine history, showing how the Black population changed demographically, religiously and in many other respects. Also, thanks to the research of historians like Wilma King, Elizabeth Pleck and Marie Jenkins Schwartz, we learned much more about the nature of family life, kinship relations, childhood and the life course during and after slavery. Then, too, we are much more knowledgeable about the development of African American expressive culture (as a result of research by scholars such as Shane White) and about 19th- and early-20th-century grassroots Black political mobilizations involving emigrationism, biracial electoral alliances, social and economic separatism, and pan-Africanism, by scholars like Steven Hahn. More of these findings might have been incorporated into the framework.
3. Does the framework adequately integrate Black history, European history and U.S. political and economic history? I don’t think so. To take just a few examples: Shouldn’t the framework more systematically trace the development of European conceptions of race or the relationship between the rise of modern slavery and the growth of mercantile and industrial capitalism, or the growth of antislavery thought? Shouldn’t it also refer at greater length to the connections between slavery and the origins, ideology and outcome of the American Revolution and centrality of slavery in the drafting of the Constitution and the evolution of the party system? How about the complex relationships between Black and white abolitionists?
4. Does the curriculum treat contemporary era and current debates adequately? You might not know from the AP framework that recent scholarship has problematized many of the issues that the curriculum treats. Why, scholars have asked, did the Brown v. Board of Education decision have such a delayed impact and what were the decision’s consequences for Black principals and teachers? What about the heated debates during the 1960s and 1970s over racial capitalism and internal colonialism? And shouldn’t there be much more about the rise of Black political leadership at the urban, state and national levels?
In the same piece, Mintz also evaluates the recent issue of the American Historical Review devoted to the 1619 Project. He writes:
Let me be clear about my personal perspective. I believe that the AHR’s responsibility is not to endorse or repudiate the project or render a thumbs-up or -down, but, rather, to help its readership, including schoolteachers, engage with the project on a high level. That is, to provide nuance, inject complexity, add facts and discuss teaching strategies. Is that what the forum did? Not really. I find it stunning that the World Socialist Web Site remains the place to turn if one truly wants to understand the factual, conceptual, theoretical, methodological and, yes, political issues that are at stake in the controversies surrounding “The 1619 Project.”
Mintz discusses the AHR essays from Annette Gordon-Reed, Dan Sharfstein, Daryl Michael Scott, Indrani Chatterjee, Karin Wulf, Sandra Greene, and James Sweet.
For all of its grand ambitions—to rewrite this country’s master narrative and challenge the nation’s liberal, exceptionalist pretensions—“The 1619 Project” doesn’t effectively integrate the experience of Native Americans or European and Asian immigrants or the white working class (and its predecessors, including indentured servants, Redemptioners and apprentices), into a coherent synthesis. Neither does it adequately link this nation’s glaring and persistent economic, educational, health and housing disparities to the evolution of the American economy and polity or successfully explicate the intentional and unintentional impact of race upon policy formulation and the consequences of law and policy upon racial inequities. Nor does it successfully locate the U.S. experience in the comparative context, for this is not the only nation in which law, policy and culture function in ways that naturalize profound, persistent inequalities. Those ambitions prove to be a bridge too far.
Read it all here.
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