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William Allen, who helped write Florida's new history standards, stands by curriculum

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, many people talk about the Florida standards without seeing the Florida standards. It's a 216-page document - I've got it open on my screen here - including the sentence that has drawn so much attention from Vice President Harris and others, the one about slaves learning skills. The people who put together the Florida standards include William Allen, who is a professor emeritus of political science at Michigan State University, and he is on the line. Welcome to the program, sir.

WILLIAM ALLEN: Good morning to you.

INSKEEP: Let's drill down in the specific sentence that's gotten all the attention. It says, quote, "Instruction includes how slaves developed skills, which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit." What did you mean by that?

ALLEN: I think the sentence explains itself. Its grammar is certainly perfectly clear when refers to the fact that those who were held in slavery possess skills, whether they developed them before being held in slavery, while being held in slavery or subsequently to being held in slavery, from which they benefited when they applied themselves in the exertion of those skills. That's not a statement that is at all controversial. The facts sustain it. The testimonies of the people who lived the history sustain it.

INSKEEP: I think you're correct. You could even look at the movie "12 Years A Slave," which is a true story of a man who was enslaved who knew how to play the fiddle. People had different skills and used them in different ways and sometimes were able to make money for themselves while enslaved. That seems to be factually true. But the allegation here is that you were trying to make slavery seem nice, like a job training program. Did you intend to say that?

ALLEN: The allegation is unrelated to the reality. And let me emphasize that I'm not the author, and no one in the work group the author. This was a collaborative process, a deliberative process, and the result is a consensual agreement. Therefore, I do not speak to the intentions of the work group, and I don't substitute my intentions for the work group.

INSKEEP: Well, if you just look at that language, do you see anything that says that slavery is nice?

ALLEN: When I look at that language, I see what Booker T. Washington meant when he entitled his autobiography "Up From Slavery" rather than "Down In Slavery." I see what Frederick Douglass meant when he described his slave mistress teaching him to read only at the beginning because his owner put a stop to it. But that small glimmer of light was enough to inspire him to turn it into a burning flame of illumination from which he benefited and his country benefited.

INSKEEP: You're again telling a true story that Frederick Douglass told himself of how he taught himself how to read. I think you're saying that you see inspiration in that sentence rather than something awful.

ALLEN: I think Douglass saw inspiration in it. I think those who followed him saw inspiration in it. And more decisively, I think Douglass and Ida B. Wells in 1893 gave explicit testimony to that inspiration when they were protesting the exclusion of Africans from the Columbian Exposition and - in the midst of thousands of lynchings. And they celebrated the accomplishments of those post-slavery who had demonstrated their capacities and their skills. But most importantly, they hailed those accomplishments not only as the accomplishments of Black Americans, but the accomplishments of American principles. These are constantly repeated themes. I won't elaborate all the examples of them any more than I will speak to Eatonville and its Black Seminole traditions, which are all reported in these standards as appropriate to be taught to schoolchildren.

INSKEEP: I want to note the context, which maybe is why so many people have felt uncomfortable here. They know that Ron DeSantis is the governor of Florida, that he has pushed very hard on culture war issues, and also he's pushed into the universities. He also signed something called the Stop Woke Act. And one of the things that it said to do is prohibit teachings that might make students feel, quote, "guilt or discomfort for historic wrongs." Knowing the context in which your work was going to be seen and also used - I mean, teachers in - under that law are going to interpret these standards and decide what to teach. Were you entirely comfortable working for the state of Florida?

ALLEN: I didn't work for the state of Florida.

INSKEEP: Go on.

ALLEN: This is a volunteer effort. I was not compensated for it. I responded to a general call for people with interest in and commitment to the educational institutions of the state to respond, and I responded. And I participated willingly. It was an offer, a contribution of voluntary public service. The context was, what should schoolchildren be asked to learn when a standalone strand of curriculum standards is, for the first time, initiated in the state of Florida? That's the context. That's where we worked. And I'm certainly perfectly content that I had the opportunity to contribute to that.

INSKEEP: And I'll just mention, since you said that Eatonville is in the standards, I've done a search here and the word Eatonville is, in fact, mentioned six times in the standards.

ALLEN: As well as the name Zora Neale Hurston.

INSKEEP: Zora Neale Hurston. We've just got about 10 or 15 seconds left here. Bottom line, do you think that teachers following these standards will give an accurate representation of American history to students?

ALLEN: I think teachers are intelligent. And I know because I've worked with a few outstanding teachers in mentoring relationship in Florida, and they understand that the standards give them the opportunity to teach. They do not dictate to them what to say.

INSKEEP: OK. William Allen is a member of the work group behind Florida's new African American history curriculum. Professor, thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "I WAITED FOR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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