In response to numerous schools adopting a history curriculum based on The New York Times’s 1619 Project, Sen. Tom Cotton proposed a bill that would deny them federal funding. The 1619 Project is a series of essays asserting that the United States was founded on slavery and that its institutions continue to discriminate against black Americans. The curriculum is designed to introduce these arguments and themes to the classroom.
Several prominent historians have criticized the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies and obvious narrative-peddling. To introduce this into the classroom would give students a warped view of America and completely misrepresent of history as a discipline.
Most of the writers of the 1619 Project are not historians with expertise, either, but journalists offering biased and uninformed takes on American history. They are not doing the hard work of synthesizing historical data into a coherent vision of the past; they are pulling stories out of thin air.
To her credit, the project’s leader Nikole Hannah-Jones is quite open about her intentions, which, first and foremost, is to guilt Caucasian Americans into paying slavery reparations. As Hannah-Jones exclaimed, “If you read the whole project, I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations.”
By itself, the 1619 Project fulfills Hannah-Jones’s purpose since her audience, mostly educated white liberals, can properly assess her argument and act accordingly. If the project is presented as a supplement to K-12 curriculum, however, it is difficult to see these essays as anything other than leftist indoctrination.
Obviously, this development alarms conservatives who loathe the idea of young Americans learning to hate their country and distrust their institutions and fellow countrymen. Already, many young people have taken to the streets to vandalize property and attack police to “protest” systemic racism. By perpetuating the 1619 narrative, won’t schools simply worsen the problem and radicalize even more Americans? Would a bill to federally defund such schools really do anything?
In both cases, probably not. People generally do not become radicalized because of what they know, but what they don’t know. As Socrates put it, ”There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.”
More often than not, most American students don’t learn their country’s history to begin with, so they carelessly internalize corporate media’s anti-American narratives. Therefore, switching one set of facts that Americans never learn with another set of facts they will never learn will only yield the same outcome. Rather, a change must be made to how history is taught before considering what history is taught.
Most American schools have long neglected teaching American history competently. Following the leads of Common Core and College Board, the American history curriculum for most schools emphasize learning historical skills like reading a document, analyzing a graph, determining trends over time, instead of learning about key historical documents, events, and figures.
These pedagogy gimmicks are maintained in teacher trainings. It’s all about doing projects, group work, and using cool new apps. It all looks like learning; it all looks like real work; and yet, all of it amounts to busywork. And then we’re all scratching our heads at why our students don’t do better on the test.
By replacing content with skills, this approach has not only led to widespread ignorance about America, but it has also driven most students to adopt a cynical view of their history. Long before the 1619 Project, students in many history classes were learning to dismiss the Pilgrims and Founding Fathers as self-interested bigots instead of great figures, while labeling winning World War II and the Cold War as sheer luck instead of great achievements.
The idea was to encourage critical thinking, but without any substance to back up their conclusions or provide context, students only learned to instinctively criticize everything. They never learn about Andrew Jackson’s success in the Nullification Crisis or winning the Battle of New Orleans, but they know he killed plenty of Native Americans in the Trail of Tears. They never learn about the great advances brought about by American industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, but they learn to label these men pejoratively as “robber barons” who “exploited” workers and the environment.
It’s also important to note that leftists usually get a pass. While successful conservative presidents like James Polk, Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan are rated poorly, leftist politicians with serious shortcomings, like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and even Jimmy Carter are redeemed and celebrated.
Not only does this treatment of history distort the truth, but it is also demoralizing for young people yearning for role models. They learn there are no heroes and that American exceptionalism is a lie; that there’s nothing special about the United States, it just “happens” to be the most powerful, freest, and prosperous country in the world.
In many ways, the adoption of the 1619 Project doesn’t essentially change American history for most students. It still relies on the same methods of history instruction. The education leaders who support it are mainly thinking of ways to engage their students of color. This is clear when Buffalo, New York’s associate superintendent, Fatima Morrell calls the 1619 curriculum a “curriculum of emancipation, a pedagogy of liberation, for freeing the minds of young people.” But like most educational gimmicks, it will probably do little and quickly be replaced by some other gimmick.
Nevertheless, there is still a very real problem with the way American history is taught. What needs to change is the skills-based approach to history. History should be content-centered once more. Only after students know the requisite important names, dates, and places can they have a solid base of knowledge to analyze and evaluate various issues.
If students followed this sequence, they would see just how amazing their country and culture are. When past generations took this approach, they did much better on civic tests than today’s more formally educated youth and consequently felt much more patriotic than most Americans today.
As schools receive most of their funding from the state and city, instead of introducing a bill to defund schools that use the 1619 Project, Cotton and other patriotic lawmakers should put their weight behind the ideas of educational reformer E.D. Hirsch, who proposed that schools return to teaching knowledge acquisition, which in turn better allows for skill acquisition. For teaching history, a better grasp of the facts would empower students to resist flimsy narratives made by anti-American hacks.
This would also require taking on teachers college monopolies over teacher access to classrooms. Teachers colleges are captured by false ideology against teaching facts and towards teaching leftist ideology. Teachers should be allowed to teach without their endorsement.
A stronger knowledge of American history would restore the love of country in today’s cynical youth. In a time of strife, a properly informed patriotism is sorely needed to restore our national sense of unity. Scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal once said, “To understand is to forgive.” The goal of learning the history of our nation should be to have this kind of understanding, not finding ever more faults to emotionally exploit.