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

The holiday week didn’t seem to slow down the culture-war rhetoric. Here are a couple of ILYBYGTH-themed stories that came across our desk this week. Thanks to everyone who sent in stories and tips.

Historian Sean Wilentz on the difference between “liberals” and “progressives.”

  • “there is a rumor abroad in the land that only progressives care about the powerless and the poor, whereas liberals are just vaguely left-of-center fig leaves for plutocrats and globalizers. . . . This was edifying and improbable pandering.”

    wheaton rainbow bench

    ARE the times a-changin?

LGBTQ issues at evangelical colleges, at NPR. HT: EC.

Yes: Why do white evangelicals love Trump?

Double standards, elite liberal hypocrisy, and Trump-shaming, at FPR.

It’s tough to be a teacher, by Andrew Heller.

What do Hungarian school children read in their textbooks? “It can be problematic. . . . for different cultures to coexist.” At NYT. HT: HD.

The David defense: Trump’s relationship with Stormy Daniels in biblical language, at Vox.

Life after polygamy in Short Creek, at R&P.

Schools are getting safer these days, in spite of how it feels. From NCES.

The coming collapse of Christian colleges, by Rod Dreher at AC.

More teachers’ strikes: Kentucky teachers stay home, at CNN.

Should history be patriotic? At The Atlantic.

Want to save the humanities?