Let’s Not Freak Out about the 1619 Project, Part Deux

So there has been plenty of disagreement lately about the 1619 Project. With apologies to SAGLRROILYBYGTH for harping on the subject, I have one more question to ask. Namely, though I 100% support the big-picture goals of the project, is it fair to say that children are not learning enough about the history of racism in these United States? I think we’re facing a different problem: America’s children are learning plenty about the contributions of African Americans. But the way they are learning it has two big problems.

wineburg famous americans

From Wineburg, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), pg. 165

To be clear as possible, I’ll say it again: I’m a fan and consumer of the 1619 Project. I have used and will continue to use their materials in my history classes. Especially with all the mean-spirited debates recently, people tend to want to turn this literally into a black-and-white issue. It’s not. There are nuances that are worth talking about.

For example, what are we to make of the findings of Stanford’s Sam Wineburg? Wineburg surveyed children and adults about their historical knowledge, and found that the three best-known historical figures (presidents excepted) were Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman.

Clearly, Americans of all ages are aware of the historical contributions of African Americans. Dr. King is far better-known than figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Henry Ford. Yet two big problems remain. As Nikita Stewart wrote in a 1619 Project essay, children learn about Harriet Tubman in a weird way. Even the history of slavery is somehow twisted into a cheerful, heroic tale. As Stewart put it,

Elementary-school teachers, worried about disturbing children, tell students about the “good” people, like the abolitionists and the black people who escaped to freedom, but leave out the details of why they were protesting or what they were fleeing.

It’s not only slavery. Recently, Mattel released a celebratory Rosa Parks doll. As historian Jeanne Theoharis noted, the history that Mattel told was decidedly lacking. As Theoharis wrote,

Mattel, your blurb on how Rosa Parks “led an ordinary life as a seamstress until an extraordinary moment on Dec. 1” is just plain wrong.

So American children—whether in schools or toy stores—are apparently hearing about prominent African Americans. But the stories they are hearing are folded into a traditional tale of heroic American heroism, triumphing over adversity with everything working out in the end. It is a story of racism defeated and slavery outlawed, not one of continuing racial disparities and racial violence.

theoharis on barbieThat’s not the only problem with the ways many children are learning the history of race and racism in America. Some children learn a lot, and that’s a problem. As Nikita Stewart explained, she personally had a much better experience in history class.

I was lucky; my Advanced Placement United States history teacher regularly engaged my nearly all-white class in debate, and there was a clear focus on learning about slavery beyond Tubman, Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass, the people I saw hanging on the bulletin board during Black History Month.

Stewart talked with some of the great history teachers out there who are teaching far beyond their textbooks and traditions, teachers like Tiferet Ani in Maryland who expose their students to a deeper, realer version of America’s history.

As Stewart notes, there ARE a lot of great teachers doing a great job of teaching unadulterated history to their students. Unfortunately, too often those great teachers are clustered at high-resource schools. Too many Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and honors classes are, like Stewart’s, “nearly all-white.” And too many schools in low-resource areas can’t offer the same range of excellent history classes.

So, yes indeed, America is conducting “educational malpractice” when it comes to teaching history. And yes, that malpractice is tied up with America’s history of racism and racial violence. But like all things in America’s schools, the malpractice is not evenly distributed. Richer, whiter students have a better chance at a great history class like Stewart’s. Too many other students don’t.

So what is the problem in America’s history classrooms? It’s not simply an absence of African American history. It comes down to two things: First, the stories about racism end up following the same overly optimistic script as the rest of the history curriculum. Racism is presented as an awkward but impersonal problem, one that has been conquered like smallpox or polio. Second, public-school history classes are not all created equal.  Students from wealthier families have a much better chance at learning much better history. And that is indeed “educational malpractice.”

Let’s Not Freak Out about the 1619 Project

Just a reminder: When it comes to the actual teaching and learning in real-life classrooms, even the biggest academic/journalist firestorms tend to sweep by far overhead, leaving the landscape untouched. This week, a group of prominent historians aired their beef with the New York Times’s 1619 Project. Insults flew. In the end, though, none of this ruckus will make any difference to the history that kids learn in school.1619 project

First, a little background: Back in August, the NYT Magazine published a collection of essays, the 1619 Project. Taken together, the goal of the project was—as described by editor Nikole Hannah-Jones—nothing less than to highlight the unique historical role played by African Americans, to flip the standard script and re-center the standard racial narratives. As Hannah-Jones wrote,

Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.

A few days ago, a group of prominent academic historians registered a complaint. They did not disagree with the goal of promoting greater awareness of the history of racism, but they thought this particular attempt had some flaws. Big ones. As they wrote,

we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it. These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.

Maybe to no one’s surprise, the fight was on. Defenders of each side lit up the internet with angry denunciations and defenses. If we have to pick sides, I’m generally on the side of the 1619 Project. I think schools can do a much better job of getting real history into the hands of children, including the uncomfortable truths of America’s sordid and violent racial legacies. We don’t just want to turn bad guys into good guys and vice versa; we want schools to give students the truth, even when it hurts.

But here’s the thing: I don’t expect classroom teachers to care very much about what I think. And I know for a fact that the most important element in teachers’ decision-making is neither the 1619 Project nor the objections of the Prominent Five. In the end, none of these debates will make a big difference in the way history is really taught in these United States. Most history teachers care a lot about history. But in general, history teachers do not adjust their lessons based on the blockbuster publications of the New York Times. They don’t care about MacArthur grants. They do not follow the pontifications of Ivy-League historical rebutters.

The prominent historians seem unaware of this obvious fact. Indeed, the reason for their alarm, they wrote, was precisely because the NYT planned to make 1619 Project materials available to schools for history classes. The historians seem to think that classroom teachers were just about to change over all their teaching based on Hannah-Jones’s essay, but they were waiting for the historians’ ruling before they proceeded to plan their lessons. That’s not how teachers teach.

Instead, by and large, they teach the history that their local community wants taught. How do we know? For one thing, those of us with experience in real history classrooms know how those classrooms tend to look. By and large (though there are exceptions here and there), teachers do not use history to cudgel their students into accepting any particular ideological take. Teachers do not push political ideas on their students. Teachers mostly want students to do four things:

  1. Learn about what happened in the past,
  2. improve their ability to evaluate evidence,
  3. get better at writing about it clearly and convincingly, and
  4. become a better version of their young selves, whatever that means to each student.

Don’t take my word for it. We have harder evidence about how teachers decide what to teach and how to teach it. For example, though it wasn’t about history, Penn State political scientists conducted a big survey of high-school teachers and confirmed our hunch. The most important factor in determining real classroom teaching was local community opinion. If the community wanted teachers to teach something, teachers taught it. If the community didn’t, teachers didn’t. This wasn’t a big dramatic deal—teachers aren’t often bullied à la Inherit the Wind. Rather, generally teachers are part of their local communities and they are fully on board with community norms.

wineburg why learn historyFrom Stanford, too, Sam Wineburg studied the most recent effort to influence history teaching. During the 2000s, the federal government poured bajillions of dollars into the Teaching American History project. They funded hundreds of local programs. What was the result? Not much. (Full disclosure: One TAH program was housed here in sunny Binghamton and I helped direct it.)

What does this have to do with the 1619 Project? Everything. Even with over a billion dollars to spend, organizations have had little success changing the way history is taught in real classrooms. No matter if Ivy-League historians write a sour letter. No matter if the internet overheats with angry tweets and podcasts. History teachers will be focused, as usual, on something else: Their students.

In the end, if the prize is the curriculum, then this is one of those sad slugfests when the boxers go on punching long after the lights have been turned off and the crowd has gone home. Will the 1619 Project change teaching? Nope. Will the prominent historians’ response keep it at bay? Nope. Teachers will go on choosing their lessons based on an array of factors, none of which include consulting with any of the writers involved.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Take a break from the eggnog and read about some of the big doings from around the interwebs this week:

Petition Condition! All of a sudden we see a burst of culture-war petitions. Which is your favorite?

Wow: evangelical flagship magazine Christianity Today calls for Trump’s removal from office.

The typical CT approach is to stay above the fray and allow Christians with different political convictions to make their arguments in the public square, to encourage all to pursue justice according to their convictions and treat their political opposition as charitably as possible. . . . But the facts in this instance are unambiguous: The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.

  • From the ILYBYGTH files: How have other evangelical magazines weighed in on controversial issues? An example from 1957.

earnestine ritterHow do evangelical women make their mark? By falling into safe “types,” at R&P.

The Preacher . . . the Homemaker . . . the Talent . . . The Counselor . . . the Beauty.

Not funny in real life: Why teachers need to learn students’ names, at Chalkbeat.

Texas public school agrees to take down a creationist banner, but they ain’t happy about it. At KSAT.

“Somerset ISD is a place that, well, unabashedly, we keep Christ in Christmas. But this display had been here since the first day of the school year and we didn’t have a single complaint so we’re kind of shocked.”

texas school creationism

Separation of what and what?

Boris, Donald, and the rise of conservative populism, at AC.

The underlying phenomenon of all this is that the meritocratic elites of the West unleashed a political wildfire when they sought to move their nations in directions that large numbers of their citizens didn’t want to go—towards globalism, open borders, anti-nationalism, deindustrialization, anti-religion, and profound transformations in societal mores.

Too soon. Talk-radio guy fired for joking about a “nice school shooting” to distract us from impeachment. At CNN.

Can Jerry Falwell Jr. pull it off? Can big-time football make Liberty U seem like a real university? At the Ringer.

“We talk politics for a minute,” [Falwell] says, “and [Trump] asks about Becki”—Falwell’s wife—“and he says he’s glad she and Melania are becoming friends.” And then, Falwell remembers, after a few minutes of small talk, Trump had a question:

“So, how’s the football team looking?”

Getting to be that time of year: Chalkbeat offers its top-ten list—top ten ed stories of the decade.

Whom do teachers turn to for help? Other teachers. Even the technophiles have noticed.

When it comes to selecting resources for their classrooms, 81% of teachers rate other teachers as their most trusted source of information about what works. . . . Far more than principals (28%) or district staff (34%), more than review websites (39%), and more than evidence-based reports (18%).

Who are the Black Hebrew Israelites behind NJ’s shooting spree? A report from behind bars at the Tablet.

Horribly embarrassing the rabbis and families of Jewish prisoners who could visit on these holidays, the Israelites would use these opportunities to aggressively claim the core tenet of their belief: That Jews as we know them are not Jews at all, and that the only real Jews are, of course, the Black Hebrew Israelites themselves.

At The Atlantic, Andrew Ferguson says historians should avoid petitions like the one they signed to impeach Trump.

Scrolling through the endless list of obscure signatories from backwater colleges scattered between the coasts, I could just imagine them running home that evening to humblebrag to their wives or husbands, girlfriends or boyfriends: “Yeah, me and Bob Caro, we just figure enough is enough—impeach the bastard!”