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.

Heresy and the Death of the Sniff Test

It can’t be real. That was my first impression when I saw pix of the blasphemous billboard circulating around the interwebs. It just looked too hokey and too perfectly outrageous. But, as Sam Wineburg is telling us, we need to be asking different questions these days. Our old-fashioned sniff tests are way out of date. What’s worse, even Wineburg’s hopeful prescription can’t help us with some problems. Namely, as with this billboard, political realities have gotten so bizarre I’m losing hope that any of us will have much luck discerning the true from the troll.

trump christ

This can’t possibly be real…can it?

It looks so perfectly anti-Christian that I was sure it had to be a spoof. And spoof it may be, but at the very least it seems to be a real billboard. According to Snopes,

The billboard is undoubtedly real, though it is not yet clear who paid for it and when it was erected. A spokesperson for DDI Media, the St. Louis company which owns the billboard itself, told us they could not share such information.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I personally don’t care about heresy, but I am absolutely flummoxed that any self-identified Christian would equate the Donald with The Christ. The entire episode seems like more proof of Sam Wineburg’s new argument. We can no longer trust our sense of what “looks” and “feels” real and legitimate. It’s just too easy to fake it.

Among other things, Professor Wineburg describes his study of internet readers. He asked ten academic historians to decide which group was more trustworthy based on their websites, the American College of Pediatricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics. One (ACP) is a legitimate professional organization of doctors. The other (AAP) is an anti-gay splinter group.

Turns out, these historians—all of them hyper-trained to read and decode complicated texts—weren’t very good at figuring out how to evaluate on-line legitimacy. As Wineburg writes,

Typically, the historians would size up a site within seconds.  Snap judgments were often based on a site’s “look” or its official-sounding name. . . . [one] chose the established American Academy of Pediatrics, not because of differences in the organizations’ stature or pedigrees (he never ventured beyond the two sites to learn about these organizations respective backgrounds), but because of the fonts on their webpages.

As Wineburg points out, evaluating online information based on these sorts of impressions is woefully out of date. Back in the wild 1990s, we used to be able to evaluate information based on the look of the website. Shoddy graphics, sketchy organizational details, and over-long web addresses were all easy give-aways.

These days, those markers are simply too easy to fix. A fly-by-night extremist organization can have a website that looks and feels legit.wineburg why learn history

Wineburg has hope. Students and the rest of us can learn better tools to detect online fraud and fakery. We can learn to read the web laterally instead of trusting any one website.

As this billboard episode shows us, though, perhaps we need to be more concerned than that. For me, the billboard appeared fake not only because it looked poorly made, but because its message was so outrageous. So, yes, I thought it was fake because it looked kind of blurry and because it didn’t include any information about its source. But I also thought it was fake because no Christian could possibly have intended to advertise such a blatantly blasphemous message.

Yet someone did. Clearly, the old fashioned sniff tests can’t help us anymore. Fake information can look real. Even worse, though, ideas that would have been too hateful to see bruited about in public spaces now seem common.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Lynching creationists, confirming judges, and much more. Here are a few of the stories that marched across our desk this week:

Creationist school board candidate runs a terrible ad, at FA.

swung by neck not tail

???

Sam Wineburg: New media literacy law won’t work, at WaPo.

Jon Shields on the decline of the conservative professoriate, at NA.

if one wants to be exposed to a broad spectrum of political ideas, it is still far better to attend Notre Dame or Baylor than Berkeley or Cornell.

More spoof articles get accepted by academic journals, at NR. HT: MM

a call for awareness into the different ways dogs are treated on the basis of their gender and queering behaviors, and the chronic and perennial rape emergency dog parks pose to female dogs.

Kavanaugh Karamazov? Comparing the trials of Brett and Dimitri at PD.

Trials are not the place for working out our social grievances and anxieties.

Call Obi-Wan: The US Navy now has real ray-guns. At Cosmos.

ray gun

>>pew pew<<

Did Common Core change teacher behavior? Larry Cuban says kinda.

Professor under fire for hateful comments about the Kavanaugh hearings, at IHE.

Does this flyer count asliberal indoctrination” by a public-school teacher? At PI.

pa liberal indoctrination

Civics ed? Or sinister indoctrination?

Taxpayers fund a school field trip to the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, at LHL.

Mitch McConnell as Hindenburg, a “gravedigger of democracy,” at NYRB.

What’s the big IDEA with this fast-expanding charter network? At Chalkbeat.

Ah, fresh air! A pop history of baby cages at GH.

baby cage

You can forget those “free-range” child-rearing practices…

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Spring still feels pretty far away up here in the woods. Here are some stories that kept us occupied this past week:

Trumpism and the authoritarian personality, at NYT. HT: HD.

Speak no revival: Liberty bans talk of RedLetterRevival, at RNS.

FBI, MLK, and the first televangelist, at R&P.

ok teacher march

Teachers march in OK.

  • “History does not repeat itself, but often, it does rhyme. Today, the White House has an evangelical advisory board and a coterie of televangelists to march alongside the executive branch. Are the African American members of President Trump’s evangelical advisory council the modern day Michauxs?”

How do radical creationists change their mind? Not by argument, at RD.

  • “However well-intentioned you are, bludgeoning people with fact after argument after fact will only entrench them in their position and reinforce a perception of being persecuted by the world.”
  • How can creationists refuse to acknowledge scientific evidence? Easy, at ILYBYGTH.

Arizona’s up-and-coming Betsy Devos clone, at NR.

Why don’t Americans care more about World War I? At The Guardian.

Shocking: Mother uses stun gun to wake her teenager for Easter services. At RNS.

LGBTQ at evangelical colleges: Author interview at IHE.

Hullabaloo at Taylor, too.

Oh my: New flat-earth poll finds only 2/3 of young people “confident” that the earth is a sphere, at LS.

Too far for the Atlantic: Kevin Williamson fired for advocating hanging women who had abortions.

Sweepin Down the Plains: Oklahoma teachers march 110 miles, at NBC.

Are college history classes teaching students to be critical thinkers? Erm…not really, says Stanford’s Sam Wineburg at IHE.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Hard to believe another week has come and gone so fast. It has been difficult to keep tabs on all the ILYBYGTH-related stories out there. Here are a few that SAGLRROILYGYBTH might find interesting:

If you were the principal, what would YOU do? This South Carolina teacher got suspended for having her kids defend the Klan. HT: MM

Five Wheaton College students face charges in a violent hazing assault, as reported by the Chicago Tribune.

Ben Shapiro on the problem with college protesters, the “idol of self.”

What should a science booster-club leader do when a parent questions his religious beliefs? One story from the National Center for Science Education.

Did the right wing come from outer space? David Auerbach looks at the sci-fi roots of radical conservatism.Bart reading bible

“More…than just big hair and money.” An interview with John Wigger, author of a new history of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

What are historians saying about Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s new Vietnam War documentary? At HNN, Professor Bob Buzzanco offers a few criticisms.

What do standardized history tests tell us? Not so much, argues Sam Wineburg and his colleagues.

Why so few conservative professors? George Yancey says there’s more to it than self-selection.

A portrait of a culture-war powerhouse: Daniel Bennett on the history of conservative legal activists Alliance Defending Freedom.

What’s a Guy Like Me Supposed to Do?

I’m torn. I don’t know what progressive historians are supposed to think. On the one hand, whenever conservative politicians try to ban a historian as “anti-American,” it makes us all want to rally around. On the other, though, when that historian has been convicted of peddling “bad history,” it doesn’t seem right to recommend him.

A new celebration of the late Howard Zinn at The Progressive brought all these questions back to mind. To many of my fellow progressives, it seems, Professor Zinn still represents real history, the “people’s” history. Even Matt Damon says so. Academic historians, however, even those with impeccable progressive credentials, have condemned Zinn’s work as schlock.

Most famously, Michael Kazin blasted Zinn’s work as “unworthy of . . . fame and influence.” Kazin pulled no punches. In words calculated to pierce the heart of any historian, Kazin accused Zinn of reducing

the past to a Manichean fable and mak[ing] no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live? His failure is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger’s Web site than to a work of scholarship.

Ouch.

Kazin is not alone. Top historians could offer only a mixed bag of tepid enthusiasm and vague condemnation for Zinn’s legacy.

From Stanford, history-education guru Sam Wineburg came down staunchly against Zinn’s polemic effort. It might make for good leftist locker-room speeches, but Zinn’s book repeated all the terrible flaws of mainstream textbooks, Wineburg argued.

So what are we to make of Howard Zinn’s legacy? Should we encourage young people to read a book that isn’t great history? Because it might open their eyes to bigger truths about American society? Or are progressives supposed to be the side of unvarnished truth instead of self-serving propaganda?

Is Zinn the Darwin of the History World?

There are few things more troubling than a book ban.  Yet conservative activists keep trying to ban Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States.  The latest effort takes place in Arkansas.  To us, this raises a tricky question: Is Zinn the Darwin of the history world?

Of course, that’s not the only question that might keep us up at night.  We might ask why this particular book is so offensive to conservatives.  We might even ask how banning books and ideas unites the left and the right these days.

Maybe we’ll get to those questions some fine day.  Today, though, we want to ask about the Zinn/evolution connection.

Who’s afraid of the big bad Zinn?

First, some catch up: If you don’t know Howard Zinn, you might get a tax break for your energy-saving under-a-rock lifestyle.  His People’s History has long been touted as a welcome correction to the flag-waving, Bible-thumping, chest-beating stories that so often get taught in US History classes.  In Zinn’s history, European explorers aren’t heroes, but exploiters and rapists.  In Zinn’s telling, “Manifest Destiny” was nothing but a shill for robbery and genocide.  In a word, Zinn offered a leftist counter-history to the standard textbook tale.

And opposition to Zinn has been ferocious.  A few years back, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels tried to ban the book from Indiana.  And now, Representative Kim Hendren has introduced a bill in Arkansas to ban everything written by Zinn since 1959.

As I argued in my book The Other School Reformers, conservative educational activists have always been a fractious bunch.  On one thing, though, they agreed without even having to talk about it: Schools must be “safe spaces” for students.  They must not introduce ideas that shake students’ religious faith, patriotic pride, or traditional notions of family.

The most obvious intellectual threat to the conservative vision of proper education has been evolution.  Since the 1920s, conservatives worked hard—often with great success—to have evolutionary theory banned or watered down in American public schools.

But history books have often come under fire, too.  Long before Zinn freaked out the squares with his People’s History, Harold Rugg’s textbooks were purged from millions of American schools.  Rugg’s books were yanked from shelves, and one hapless school board member in my sunny hometown of Binghamton, New York suggested they should be piled up and burned.

The parallels seem striking.  Like evolution, leftist history is seen as a deadly threat, a spiritual and intellectual contaminant.  Many conservative activists think they must eliminate it entirely in order to protect students.  Consider former Governor Mitch Daniels’ comments from Indiana.  “How do we get rid of [A People’s History],” Daniels asked, “before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

Like Darwin’s theory of natural selection, or its neo-Darwinian progeny, many conservatives see Zinn’s historical ideas as a terrible threat to their children’s well-being.  They might well want their children to consider a broad range of diverse ideas, but Zinn’s telling of US history, like Darwin’s telling of the origins of humanity, seems to veer far out of bounds of acceptable thinking.  Like evolutionary theory, Zinn’s history sparks an immediate fear among conservatives.  Some activists worry that mere exposure to such ideas will harm their children.

Look out, children!

For reasons like these, it seems fair to conclude that Zinn does indeed serve as a sort of Darwin of the historical world.  Zinn’s vision of US history seems to match Darwin’s vision of speciation, in the perceived intellectual threat it poses to the helpless children of conservative America.

But we can’t stop there.  There are also important differences between Zinn and Darwin.  When it comes to evolutionary theory, academic biologists agree: the modern evolutionary synthesis is our best current understanding of speciation.  Banning evolution, or even watering it down by suggesting that it is only one idea out of many equals, means giving schoolkids worse science.

Fans of Zinn’s People’s History can’t say the same thing.  True, the American Historical Association condemned Governor Daniels’ ban.  But historians as a whole don’t love Zinn’s book.  Sam Wineburg, for example, has famously pointed out the problems with Zinn’s work.  Michael Kazin, too, agreed that Zinn’s book was “stronger on polemical passion than historical insight.”  Neither Kazin nor Wineburg liked Indiana’s attempted ban, but neither of them loved Zinn’s book, either.

So as Arkansas gears up to debate (again) the notion of banning leftist history, we can agree that banning Zinn is a bad idea.  Straight-up dumb.  But we don’t want to fall into the obvious trap.  Zinn is no Darwin.  Banning evolution means banning science.  Banning Zinn doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating good history.

Let’s say it again: Banning Zinn is a terrible idea.  It is good for students to consider different ideas about history.  His book, though, should be understood for what it is: a political book about history, not a history book about politics.

Historians Rule the School

Why do educational historians have so much influence, relative to other kinds of educational scholars? This year’s Edu-Scholar influence rankings are in, and historians seem to be represented far beyond their numbers.

Like any ranking system, this one is imperfect. (It must be, since it didn’t include your humble editor.) Overall, the Edu-Scholar scale tries to couple academic influence with policy influence. As Rick Hess explains in the pages of EdWeek,

The rubric reflects both a scholar’s body of academic work—encompassing the breadth and influence of their scholarship—and their footprint on the public discourse last year. . . . I’m not sure that I’ve got the measures right or even how much these results can or should tell us. That said, I think the same can be said about U.S. News college rankings, NFL quarterback ratings, or international scorecards of human rights. For all their imperfections, I think such efforts convey real information—and help spark useful discussion.

Fair enough. Given those caveats, by this scale, at least, historians seem to punch far above their weight. Why?

Just in the top ten, for example, are historians Diane Ravitch (#1) and Larry Cuban (#8). At number four we find Gary Orfield, a sociologist whose work on desegregation is heavily historical.

We don’t have to go very far down the list (#26) to find Jon Zimmerman, ILYBYGTH’s house favorite. Penn’s Marybeth Gasman shows up at 18. Also included are David Labaree, Charles Payne (another sociologist who writes a lot about civil-rights history), and Sherman Dorn. Sam Wineburg is also on the list, and though he’s not officially an historian he writes about history and historical thinking.

That might not seem like a lot of historians, out of a total of 200 scholars. But when it comes to public policy, the surprise is that there are any academic historians at all. And doubly surprising to find more than one in the top ten! In general, academic historians get nervous when it comes to making pronouncements about current-day policy.

Many of the scholars here are full-time policy wonks. It would seem their work would do more to influence thinking about education than would the work of so many historians.

So why do all these wonderful historians exert so much influence on public discourse?