by David Davenport, research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center.
Originally published in the Washington Examiner.
Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) may have referred to the ancient practice of bloodletting when he famously said, “Sometimes the remedy is worse than the disease.”
We need not go that far here, but new laws proposed in five states to ban the teaching of the 1619 Project are the wrong solution to a very real problem. The New York Times introduced the 1619 Project in 2019, on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slaves in the American colonies. Its goals were not modest. The project seeks to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery … at the very center of our national narrative.” The project sought to redefine the founding of America to 1619, with its economic system of slavery, rather than in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence or the 1787 signing of the Constitution.
The project has had a surprising impact on the teaching of history. The Pulitzer Center, which has collaborated with the project to offer lesson plans to teachers, reports that more than 4,000 teachers from all 50 states are teaching their materials. It is reminiscent of Howard Zinn’s infamous textbook, A People’s History of the United States, which was introduced in 1980 as an alternative telling of the American story, one that emphasized the sins and errors of the founders and leaders, and has become a widely used, even mainstream, text.
The political nature of the 1619 Project was recognized immediately, with President Donald Trump appointing a “1776 Commission” to reassert the primacy of the Declaration in America’s founding. Sen. Tom Cotton introduced the “Saving American History Act” to remove federal monies used to teach 1619 materials and ideas. Cotton called the 1619 Project a “racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded.” Now five states, Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota, have seen bills introduced to block state funding also.
The problems with the 1619 Project and these proposed state laws are legion, but let’s start by acknowledging that we do a terrible job of teaching civics and history in schools.
In the most recent “Nation’s Report Card” testing, only 24% of eighth-graders tested “proficient” or better in U.S. history, a mere 15% in civics and government. So, before states put energy into the politics of history, they need to prioritize teaching the basics of history and civics. Standardized testing in reading, science, technology, engineering, and math education have all but pushed civics out of the curriculum. As I outlined in a recent report, states need to mandate the teaching of history and civics, not only in high school but in the elementary and middle school as well. The federal government should be embarrassed that it spends $54 per student annually on STEM education and only 5 cents on civics!
A further problem with politicizing the teaching of history is that we basically have adults working out their politics on the backs of children. As professor Sam Wineburg of Stanford University has observed, kids don’t get the interpretive game. We hardly need to subsidize more “presentism” (seeing history through 21st-century glasses) in education. People should also bristle at state governments censoring particular books or ideas. Education is still the responsibility of local government, and such matters should be worked out there. Let states address the larger questions of curriculum and funding without engaging in dueling bills over the particulars.
What we need is what Ronald Reagan called “an informed patriotism.” Neither the 1619 Project nor state bills banning it will get us there.
David Davenport is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center.