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.

The Right Historical Question about Busing

Ever since Senator Kamala Harris accused Vice President Joe Biden of cozying up to segregationists, the issue of busing has been back in the headlines. Instead of asking why busing failed or why it worked, the right question should be about where busing worked. The lesson from the twentieth century is clear: When reformers try to use schools to ram through social change, even with the purest of intentions, it won’t work.

What biden was trying to avoid

What Biden was scared of in 1975:

Vice President Biden’s political problems about busing came about long before Senator Harris’s accusations. Months ago, the Washington Post ran an exposé about Biden’s leading role in the 1970s as an opponent of court-ordered desegregation. Biden 2020 has been forced to defend decisions made by Biden 1975, and it hasn’t been easy.

Since the debate, historians and commentators have skewered the notion that busing did not achieve its aims. As Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out, the issue was never about busing itself, but about stark racism. The problem was not that busing didn’t work to integrate students of different races and backgrounds, but precisely that it did.

Historically, the politics of school integration are part of a broader pattern of school reform. Whenever reformers have tried to use schools to change society for the better, they have discovered the difficult truth. Namely, whatever the issue—racial integration, socialism, or progressive education—when reformers fail to enroll community support, their efforts at social improvement have been crushed. When they do, however, the results can be surprisingly effective.

In the late 1930s, for example, textbook author Harold Rugg came under fire for his popular textbook series. The series had been adopted by schools nationwide and the books were used by millions of American schoolchildren. As World War II heated up, however, conservative groups such as the America Legion came to believe that the books had a subversive, anti-American intent. The books, conservative critics charged, hoped to transform American society into a socialist state.

Professor Rugg protested that he was no socialist; he claimed a “deep loyalty to the historic American version of the democratic way of life.” Yet he admitted that he really did hope to transform society. In Rugg’s vision, decisions about proper curriculum should not be left in the hands of the ignorant community, but rather decided only by “competent experts” like himself. He dismissed protesters as irrational ignoramuses and their impassioned rallies as mere “Wednesday-evening testimony meetings of Holy Rollers.”

A generation later, a similar textbook controversy roiled Kanawha County, West Virginia. Protesters in 1974 and 1975 worried that a new textbook series derided traditional American values. In part, the protesters were right. As one editor of the books later recalled, he really had hoped the books would inject the “progressive energy” of 1960s radicalism into classrooms nationwide. The books took a “strong stand for pluralism and multicultural expression” that the editors hoped would overthrow the “conventions” of traditional schools and classrooms.

A laudable goal, but like Harold Rugg’s vision of “expert”-centered educational reform, the top-down reformism of the 1970s textbooks failed. Protesters in Kanawha County boycotted their schools; they convinced their Parent-Teacher Association that the new progressive textbooks were “literally full of anti-Americanism, anti-religion, and discrimination.”

The same lessons apply to the history of 1970s school desegregation—“busing”—that Biden and Harris have brought back to the headlines. On one hand, the policy of busing students to mitigate segregation often worked to improve both racial integration and educational outcomes.

On the other, busing policies often met ferocious political backlash from outraged white parents and activists. Most famously, as historian Ron Formisano described so powerfully, in Boston anti-busers rejected the attempts of Judge W. Arthur Garrity to impose more racial equality in schools.

All cities were not Boston, however. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, the simple black-and-white politics of busing looked different. When President Reagan trotted out his anti-busing rallying cry in 1984, it fell on deaf ears. Busing, Reagan charged,

takes innocent children out of the neighborhood school and makes them pawns in a social experiment that nobody wants, and we found out that it failed.

What Reagan didn’t realize, and many people in today’s revisit to the 1970s busing debates seem to have forgotten as well, was that some white people embraced busing. The crowd in Charlotte met Reagan’s dog-whistles with stony silence, and the next day the Charlotte Observer insisted that the city’s “proudest achievement is its fully integrated public school system.”

reagan in charlott

White voters hate busing, right? …right?

Certainly, North Carolina was no racial utopia. But the differences between Boston and Charlotte serve as an important reminder of the real question in school segregation and busing. They are reminders that go back long past the 1970s, to Harold Rugg and before.

Whatever the issue, when social reformers hope to use schools to effect wide-ranging improvements in society, they can only hope to succeed if they enlist the support of at least a portion of the local community. Harold Rugg did not realize that people outside his college would not simply cede control of their textbooks to his “expert” hands. Protesters in West Virginia were not willing to accept books thrust upon them by editors fueled by the “progressive energy” of the radical 1960s.

The successes of busing, too, were not limited to improvements in integration and educational success. When integrationists managed to line up local support, as with Charlotte’s Democratic Party, busing also achieved significant political support. When they didn’t, as with Boston’s aggrieved segregationists, busing failed.