Whose Afraid of the 1619 Project?

1619

Interviews with historians James McPherson, Gordon Wood, and James Oakes at a socialist website are firing-up the political critics of The New York Times‘s 1619 Project.  The latest to attack the project is Max Eden of the conservative Manhattan Institute.  In his City Journal piece “A Divisive, Historically Dubious Curriculum” Eden concludes:

To understand their country, students should read America’s Founding documents and the works of great figures like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, and grapple with history’s circumstantial and moral complexities—not “reframe” history to make it fit partisan purposes. They should be taught about the moral abomination of American slavery—but not that “slavery is our country’s very origin,” or that its legacy is baked into all our social institutions, allegations that cannot stand up to any fair-minded examination of American history. The themes and messages of the 1619 Project are not only historically dubious; they will also lead to deeper civic alienation. Conscientious teachers should file the 1619 curriculum where it belongs: in the waste bin.

Read the entire piece here.

Ramesh Ponnuru, an editor at The National Review, got so excited about Eden’s piece that he quoted the above paragraph at his blog with no commentary.

The 1619 Project is not perfect.  Some of it is not very good.  But why are people like Eden so afraid of this project?  For all its flaws, the themes of the 1619 Project are things that students need to wrestle with in the classroom. And they need to wrestle with them critically.  And they need to wrestle with them under the guidance of a skilled history teacher.  Eden believes that if students read the 1619 Project they will somehow be indoctrinated into a mode of “civic alienation.”  But this is not how a history classroom works. In fact, most good history teachers would find Eden’s piece offensive. Good history teachers teach the past to help their students think critically (and historically) about the world.  The study of the past teaches students how to understand the complexity of the human experience, change over time and continuity, causation, and contingency.  Students learn how detect bias in sources. They learn how to empathize with different voices.  They learn how to read more deeply.  These are the things that will make them better citizens.

I would jump at the chance to teach the 1619 Project.

  1. The 1619 Project forces us to comes to grips with the African-American experience in America.
  2. The 1619 Project appeared in The New York Times and has been getting a lot of attention lately.  Because of the reach of The New York Times and the ongoing debate over the Project, it begs consideration in the history classroom.  Do we really want to pretend that The 1619 Project doesn’t exist?  Do we want to shield students from it? No, we want to engage it.
  3. I would use the 1619 Project alongside primary source and second source material (like the World Socialist Website interviews) to teach my students the skills of the historian.  Instead of telling them that the 1619 Project is good or bad, I want to give my students the skill to be able to draw their own conclusions.

Eden’s piece has nothing to do with the teaching of history.  It has everything to do with politics.