Earlier this year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration came under fire for ‘rejecting’ a pilot Advanced Placement (AP) course on Black history because it included the study of “queer theory,” contained texts by critical race theorists, and advocated for “abolishing prisons.”
In the wake of the controversy, DeSantis created the Florida African American History Standards Workgroup to create an alternative to the AP curriculum. Last week, the Florida Department of Education released its revised instruction standards for African American Studies and the backlash from the media, teachers unions, and even the vice president was swift.
On Tuesday’s show, Megyn was joined by William B. Allen, PhD, former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a member of the workgroup, to get his reaction to curriculum and ensuing outcry.
The New African American Studies Curriculum
The majority of the controversy surrounding the updated African American Studies standards revolves around a single “benchmark clarification” about slavery. It reads as follows:
Examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves (e.g., agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation).
Benchmark Clarifications: Clarification 1: Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.
Considering those two statements in concert, Megyn said they don’t “seem to be at all controversial.” She likened the sentiment to a book club about Black history she was a part of several years ago at her children’s “very woke, private, left-wing” school in New York City. “The African American people in the group thought it was very important to make sure that we talked about the accomplishments of Black people in America’s history – including and especially during the time of slavery – as a testament to their spirit, as a testament to their resilience,” she explained. “So, when I saw this, I said, ‘I get it, I see exactly what they’re doing.’”
As Dr. Allen explained, the curriculum “is about allowing the people who lived the histories to speak in their own names for themselves to tell their own stories.” He cited Booker T. Washington’s autobiography titled Up From Slavery as one such example. “That’s historic, not our story,” Dr. Allen said. “He told it.” And then there is Frederick Douglass’ experience learning to read from his slave master’s mistress. “She pulled back the curtain just a bit, so the beam of light shone through,” he shared. “Well, that was enough for him to take that beam and turn it – through his own efforts – into a flame of illumination that benefited him and his country.”
The experiences of Washington and Douglass are “legendary,” Dr. Allen explained, because “the people who lived the histories told the stories.” There would be a problem, in his view, if the standards did not allow these men and women to speak in their own words. “The lie is that we should make up a story about them, rather than listening to the stories they told on their own authority,” he said.
The backlash to the “personal benefit” clarification in the updated African American Studies instruction standards came quickly. Dr. Allen said he was initially “incredulous” but then came to understand the root of the outcry. “This really had nothing to do with the standards,” he said. “ It has everything to do with the larger agenda – starting with the teachers union and their allies and, of course, carrying it to the level of the vice presidency in order to give it heft.”
As he explained, the “agenda” is to “continue to impose a mantle on the entire country that accounts for slavery as the soul of America and discounts the accomplishments of America.” He believes “that’s what it’s about” for the critics, but said they’ve gotten it all wrong. “It is categorically false to say that we embrace the positive, good school of slavery,” Dr. Allen said. “Nothing could be further from the truth, but that was the allegation as if we were John C. Calhoun and Roger B. Taney.”
Vice President Kamala Harris was so offended by the curriculum that she planned a last minute trip to Jacksonville, FL, to deliver a fiery speech on the topic. She said in part:
“Extremists pass book bans to prevent [students] from learning our true history… They push forward revisionist history… They decided middle school students will be taught that enslaved people benefited from slavery. They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us and we will not stand for it… They want to replace history with lies. They dare to push propaganda to our children. This is the United States of America. We’re not supposed to do that… Let us not be distracted by what they’re trying to do, which is to create unnecessary debates to divide our country.”– Vice President Kamala Harris, July 21, 2023
Dr. Allen was unmoved by her criticism and offered an “observation” to help clarify her remarks: “We know the vice president well,” he said. “We know that when she speaks spontaneously, she has an unavoidable cackle, but when she’s speaking from a script, she’s very grave and very serious. So, we know she’s following a script here, and the script is that she has to reject what is common sense in the name of an ideological agenda. It’s as simple as that.”
The Role of the Teachers Unions
Like Vice President Harris, Florida’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, called the curriculum a “disservice” and “a big step backward.” In a statement, it alleged the new standards “require middle school students to be taught that the experience of slavery was beneficial to African Americans because it helped them acquire skills.”
As it pertains to younger pupils, the statement claimed that, “in an attempt to protect students from ‘wokeness,’” the curriculum “will make sure that, through the fourth grade, elementary school students’ knowledge of African American history does not extend beyond being able to know who a famous African American is when they see them.”
Dr. Allen said the criticism is rich when you consider how the process of developing the standards played out. “The African American History Workgroup deliberated in public – the sessions were open to the public, and it was widely disseminated,” he explained. “The teachers union was invited to attend, to listen, and to contribute.”
According to Dr. Allen, the unions did not take advantage of the opportunity. “They blew it off for all practical purposes,” he shared. “One person, who had some affiliation, attended some of the sessions, but largely the sessions were empty and devoid of any presence from the teachers union, whether online or in person.”
He couldn’t help but wonder why that might be. “They remained silent through the entire process, contributed zero until it was all done, and then surfaced like snakes in the grass to take potshots,” he concluded. “Tell me that that’s not a deliberate design.”
You can check out Megyn’s full conversation with Dr. Allen by tuning in to episode 594 on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. And don’t forget that you can catch The Megyn Kelly Show live on SiriusXM’s Triumph (channel 111) weekdays from 12pm to 2pm ET.