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The Fatal Flaw of the 1619 Project Curriculum

In this watercolor, two female slaves work with hoes while a white oveseer watches. This painting invites a more nuanced interpretation than the 1619 Project curriculum would facilitate.

As teachers get ready for the fall, thousands will be tempted to make use of the 1619 Project curriculum offered online by the Pulitzer Center, which has formed a partnership with the New York Times to distribute lesson plans built around the essays in the 1619 Project, which were originally published in the New York Times Magazine in August 2019. Teachers and school administrators should resist this temptation, since academic reviewers, including some of the nation’s leading historians, have been unyielding in their criticism of the 1619 Project, pointing to numerous errors of fact and interpretation and rejecting its fundamental claim that the nation is defined by racism and was conceived in oppression.  There are better ways to teach students about the history and ordeal of slavery—an important subject that deserves our finest efforts.

Those same academic critics, unfortunately, have not turned their attention to the 1619 Project curriculum, which is the means by which the poisonous errors and coarse misinterpretations of Nikole Hannah-Jones and her colleagues will be transmitted, like a disease, to young Americans. Having issued their learned responses in the pages of the Atlantic or the Wall Street Journal, they may find it sufficient that the 1619 Project curriculum is the fruit of a poison tree, and not bother to examine it.

That’s not a wise position to take. The radical ideologues promoting Nikole Hannah-Jones’ grotesque view of America aren’t after the mature readers of the Atlantic or the Wall Street Journal. Despite their recent, rapid gains, they’re sticking to the long game they’ve been playing for decades, going after young, impressionable minds. Their method is not to persuade. It is to propagandize.

Their method has been working for some forty years. Their patron saint, the late Howard Zinn, aimed his subversive, error-packed People’s History of the United States at teenagers, most of them ill-equipped to see through his irrationality, misuse of sources, and politicized misinterpretations. Indeed Zinn never tried to disguise his aims when addressing mature audiences, to which he said many times that objective truth does not exist and that teaching history is nothing more than a means to advance a political agenda by confecting and presenting interpretations to support it.

The simplicity of the radical dialectic—a bipolar world of oppressors and oppressed, without the complexity or confusing contradictions of a more nuanced, realistic, view of the past—appeals to many young people. It also simplifies the task of overburdened teachers faced with the challenge of equipping students to interpret a complex and confusing world. The radical history of Howard Zinn and Nikole Hannah-Jones addresses present-day dilemmas, and seems more relevant, and certainly more accessible, than the nuanced history writing of serious scholars like Gordon Wood, Mary Beth Norton, Sean Wilentz, and James McPherson. But the fact remains that history is complicated and requires patient study, a willingness to weigh and assess confusing, fragmentary, and sometimes contradictory evidence, and the sophistication to understand that historical events and actors are shaped by many factors, of which race, while often important, is only one. Students really ought to be taught to emulate scholars who understand this, rather than to follow a venomous twenty-first-century Madame Defarge intent on reducing American history to a dismal story of racists and their victims.

The 1619 Project curriculum is actually worse than the dishonest and deceptive material on which it is based. A mature adult reader of the 1619 Project may be equipped to apply critical reasoning to its claims—particularly Hannah-Jones’ claim that the purpose of the American Revolution was to perpetuate slavery. We cannot reasonably expect middle school and high school students, to whom we ought to be teaching critical reasoning skills, to bring the same kind of skepticism to their reading of works we assign them. The 1619 Project curriculum goes out of its way to avoid a critical reading of Hannah-Jones central claims. It expects student to accept her conclusions about the nature of American history and culture without critical inquiry and asks them to regard the world around them from Hannah-Jones’ perspective, rather than treat Hannah-Jones as one of many interpreters, much less recognize her as a journalist with no credentials or standing as an historian.

The premise of the curriculum is that Nikole Hannah-Jones has discovered a fundamental truth about American history that has eluded the historical profession: that the central, defining feature of American history and culture is racism. The exercises that make up this curriculum are all based on this premise.

None of those exercises invite students to challenge the premise. Every exercise involves asking students a loaded question—a question that presupposes the relevant facts and serves the questioner’s agenda. The effect is the same as asking an innocent man if he has stopped beating his wife. The only sensible response is to dispute the premise by saying “I have never beaten my wife.” But students are rarely welcome to dispute the premise of their teachers’ questions.

Indeed in the current cultural climate, a student brave enough to challenge the Hannah-Jones premise is quite likely to be accused of being a racist—the fastest route to such a charge at this time being to challenge the thesis that something called “systemic racism” is the defining characteristic of American history and culture. The truth of this thesis has quite suddenly become an article of faith, not subject to scrutiny or consideration using the traditional canons of evidence. The Pulitzer Center’s curriculum is not a tool for intellectual exploration or discovery. It is a catechism.

Like a catechism, it presupposes the articles of the faith—one of which is irrational and indefensible absurdity that the American Revolution was conducted to perpetuate slavery. This is, in fact, the main pillar of the faith. If, as a generation of historians from Edmund S. Morgan and Bernard Bailyn, to Gordon S. Wood have made clear, the American Revolution was a pivotal moment in the development of human freedom, the central premise of the 1619 Project is revealed as pernicious nonsense.

Under no circumstances do the creators of the 1619 Project curriculum suggest students entertain this possibility. There is no room for questioning the new revelation. This is nowhere clearer than in the centerpiece of the 1619 Project curriculum, a lesson entitled “Exploring ‘The Idea of America’ by Nikole Hannah-Jones.”  In it, students are asked to read Hannah-Jones’ error-choked essay and then respond to a series of questions based on the assumption that Hannah-Jones’ claims are fact and that any assertion to the contrary is, by definition, racist.

“What examples of hypocrisy in the founding of the United States does Hannah-Jones supply?” is the lead—and leading—question. That the founding of the United States was an exercise in hypocrisy is taken for granted—because Hannah-Jones says so. The follow-up question is contorted to require students to recapitulate Hannah-Jones’ errors about the Revolution as if they were facts: “What evidence can you see for how ‘some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slaveocracy’?”

At no point in the lesson are students asked to weigh the validity of what Hannah-Jones says about the American Revolution, nor to judge the evidence she presents, because a perceptive student would recognize that she presents no evidence at all. Neither here nor anywhere else in this so-called curriculum are students asked to read and consider any of the several carefully reasoned critiques of “The Idea of America,” including those written by important historians and published in major magazines, like the one by Sean Wilentz in the Atlantic.

“What picture does Hannah-Jones paint of the major figures in classical U.S. history such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln?” ‘Jefferson and Lincoln were racists’ is the answer programmed into this catechism—students need only refer to “The Idea of America” to validate that claim. “Did you learn new information about them from her essay?”  ‘Yes,’ the student is led to answer, followed by something like ‘I learned how despicable they truly are.’  And since you learned this new information, the catechist concludes, “why do you think this information wasn’t included in other resources from which you have learned about U.S. history?”

You get the idea. Susan or Johnny are supposed to respond ‘because the history books from which I’ve learned about U.S. history were written by systemic racists,’ and gets extra credit for blessing Nikole Hannah-Jones for opening their eyes to the true faith. Woe unto the student who responds ‘I don’t think I learned that Jefferson and Lincoln were despicable from the books I’ve read because they were written by distinguished historians who devoted many years to research, carefully documented their assertions, and faced the scrutiny of professional peer review. They don’t think what Nikole Hannah-Jones has written is correct. In fact, with respect to Jefferson and Lincoln, the preeminent authorities think she’s totally wrong.’

Few sixteen- and seventeen-year-old U.S. history students are prepared to serve up that answer, and a teacher who’s embraced the 1619 Project curriculum with the zeal of a convert is not likely to respond favorably to those who can. Such a teacher might be prepared to quote Ms. Hannah-Jones, who disdains her critics as “old, white male historians” and sneers, for example, at James McPherson, the most respected Civil War historian of our time. “Who considers him preeminent?” Hannah-Jones asks. “I don’t.”

To put this sneer in context: James McPherson spent a distinguished career as an historian at Princeton. His book, The Struggle for Equality, is a standard work on the fight for black emancipation and empowerment in the Civil War and Reconstruction. His succeeding volume, The Abolitionist Legacy: From Reconstruction to the NAACP, carries the story of civil rights activism down to 1910. W.E.B. DuBois called that crusade “the finest thing in American history.”  Professor McPherson’s history of the Civil War era, Battle Cry of Freedom, put conflicting ideas about freedom, including the freedom of African-Americans, at the center of the story. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was praised by Ms. Hannah-Jones own New York Times as perhaps the best one-volume history of the Civil War ever published. His many important books include Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution and Ordeal by Fire: Civil War and Reconstruction.

A student who suggested we rely on James McPherson’s view of Lincoln, elaborated in collected works spread over nearly sixty years of patient scholarship, instead of the view of Nicole Hannah-Jones, whose collected works on Lincoln fill a few skimpy paragraphs, risks being labeled a racist by the new inquisition. The 1619 Project curriculum does not admit the possibility that “other resources from which you have learned about U.S. history”—the collected works of James McPherson, perhaps—could be right and the 1619 Project wrong. That would be heresy.

The whole dismal exercise bears comparison with the work of a German pedagogue of the 1930s, Werner May, whose German National Catechism asked leading questions in the same style: “How has the Jew subjugated the peoples?” The answer: “With Money . . .Thousands and thousands of Germans have been made wretched by the Jews and been reduced to poverty.” And another: “What other guilt does the Jew bear?”  The answer: “While the German people was fighting a life and death battle during the World War, the Jew incited people at home and seduced them into treason. . . . He corrupted Germans through bad books . . . Everywhere, his influence was destructive.” The cost to a young German of challenging the premise of these questions was high, and few students dared. Most, of course, dutifully repeated the dogmas as they were told to do.

Like the grotesquely distorted view of American history and culture framed by Nikole Hannah-Jones in her essay, “The Idea of America,” the catechism devised by the Pulitzer Center is an anti-intellectual exercise, scorning historical scholarship and elevating an error-riddled newspaper essay above interpretations of the American past carefully constructed by serious scholars over more than fifty years. The 1619 Project curriculum is not an educational enterprise. It is tool of political indoctrination. No school system should endorse it. No teacher should use it. And no student should be misled by it, nor punished for rejecting its fatally flawed premise.

Jack D. Warren, Jr.

 

Above: Architect and artist Benjamin Henry Latrobe painted this watercolor, An Overseer Doing his Duty, in 1798. It is one of the few surviving realistic depictions of enslaved people at work in the United States from the eighteenth-century (Maryland Historical Society).

We encourage all our visitors to read Why the American Revolution Matters, our basic statement about the importance of the American Revolution. It outlines what every American should understand about the central event in American history. It will take you less than five minutes to read—and a few seconds to send the link to your friends, family, and colleagues so they can read it, too.

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For more on the misleading treatment of the American Revolution in the 1619 Project, read The Revolutionary Dishonesty of the ‘1619 Project’

Review the 1619 Project curriculum lesson on “The Idea of America”

To learn more about the irresponsible treatment of the American Revolution in the 1619 Project, read our essays outlining the project’s errors, tracing them to their discredited sources, and offering an alternative interpretation of the relationship between the Revolution, natural rights and the end of slavery:

The American Revolution and the Foundations  of Free Society

What’s Wrong with “The Idea of America”?

Slavery, Rights and the Meaning of the American Revolution

The 1619 Project distorts much more of American history than the American Revolution. For other critiques, see Eliot Kaufman, “The 1619 Project Gets Schooled,” Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2019, and Sean Wilentz, “A Matter of Facts,” The Atlantic, January 22, 2020.