Tuesday, October 26, 2021

1619: Teaching history, teaching contingency

The book version of the 1619 project, scheduled for publication Nov. 16.

"I can understand pessimism, but I don’t believe in it. It’s not simply a matter of faith, but of historical evidence. Not overwhelming evidence, just enough to give hope, because for hope we don’t need certainty, only possibility." Howard Zinn 

On August 14th, 2019, a stark black-and-white photograph of an ominous gray sky above a choppy, even more ominous and darker-gray ocean appeared on the front cover of the New York Times Magazine behind these words:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully. (For links to this and all other sources in this essay, see this post)

Thus opened another front in the Great American Culture War.

On 100 pages inside appeared 10 major essays along with photographs, poems and works of fiction. As promised in the introductory paragraph, the essays connected everything about America—including the Revolution, the character of American capitalism, the lack of Universal Health Care, and even "the reactionary politics of 2019"—to race, or slavery or African-Americans.

Later, the Times launched a "1619 project curriculum," an ambitious effort to distribute extra copies of the magazine to public schools, libraries, and museums. In collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting it created a massive free website filled with resources for educators at all levels, from elementary school to college. By the summer of 2020, the center announced that more than 3,500 classrooms were making use of the materials.

High praise appeared across mainstream media.

The Columbia Journalism Review commended the Times for pointing readers “toward a richer understanding of today's racial dilemmas.” The Washington Post described the Project as “a collection of smart, provocative magazine articles about the ways slavery shaped our nation.” Celebrated filmmaker Ava DuVernay, called the project "a staggering, transformative endeavor” by a “dazzling array of thinkers.” And the National Catholic Reporter called on readers to "demand that your school—public, private, Catholic or other religious institution, charter or home—include the curriculum as a required course of study."

In May of 2020 Nikole Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her introductory essay, "America Wasn't a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One."

The award committee praised her “sweeping, provocative and personal essay” and the project as a whole as a “ground-breaking” effort “to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.”

And public conversation ensued.

Beginning in October of 1619, prominent and well respected American historians, led by Sean Wilenz, began to weigh in with criticisms of the project, first in interviews on the World Socialist Website, then in essays in the New York Review of Books, the Atlantic, Politico and even on the New York Times op-ed page. While most of the critics were white, a few prominent Black academics, including Claiborne Carson, editor of the Martin Luther King papers, Leslie Harris, an expert on American slavery at Northwestern, and the Marxist political scientist Adolph Reed Jr., also weighed in. Black women seemed less inclined than the men to come out against the project. Harris’s piece in Politico was more critical of the critics than the Project itself. 

Nell Irving Painter questioned the key fact that forms the premise of the project—that the 20 African arrivals in 1619 were enslaved—but declined to sign a letter with other critical historians. Barbara Fields, the only historian with a doctorate who appeared in Ken Burns’ 1980s Civil War documentary, declined to do an interview with the World Socialist Website. In an apparently private email, though, she called the project “tendentious and ignorant history” that failed to incorporate the works of key scholarship on slavery, especially Edmund Morgan’s, American Slavery, American Freedom. The project was a product of “neo-liberal politics,” she wrote, echoing Reed, who said it supported a “neoliberal” vision of social justice, in which “a society qualifies as being just if 1 percent of the population controls 90 percent of the wealth,” as long as the ethnic makeup of the 1 percent matches the ethnic makeup of the general population. The politics of these critics ranged from Marxist left to the mainstream of the Democratic Party.

Battle lines in the Great American Culture War do not break down along neat partisan lines. All the critics mentioned so far almost certainly vote the straight Democratic ticket as do the supporters of the project. But even within the broad left, those folks don’t line up into the categories you’d expect: center-left-moderate-Clinton Democrats versus far-left-socialist-Sanders Democrats. Marxist scholars like Reed and Fields, staunch supports of Bernie Sanders in the last two presidential primaries, joined the chorus of 1619 critics with people like Sean Wilentz, an outspoken anti-Sanders supporter of Hillary Clinton.

The Times resisted every effort from this group to correct or retract any part of the Project until it heard from Danielle Allen, a Black Harvard Classics Scholar and self-proclaimed lover of democracy who has recently announced her candidacy for Governor of Massachusetts. According to the Post, in February of 2020, she emailed Jones and project editor, Jake Silverstein, threatening to publicly denounce the project unless the Times corrected one of its most contentious claims about the Revolution, that a “primary” motive was to protect slavery against British abolitionists. The Times printed a clarification (labeled as an "editors' note”) saying that only “some” colonists rebelled for that reason. Jones has said she stands by the original wording. (Another publication attributes the change to a forum made up of historians who were supporters of the Project.)

Of course the fight over 1619 also got tangled up in partisan politics. In July of 2020 Republican Senator Tom Cotton called the project “a radical work of historical revisionism aiming to indoctrinate our kids to hate America” and introduced the "Saving American History Act," which would have made schools that use the 1619 Project in their curriculum ineligible for federal professional development funds. In September of that year President Trump threatened to withhold federal education funds from California if its Department of Education used 1619 materials in public school curricula and in November he launched the 1776 Commission to develop a "patriotic curriculum."

Joe Biden abolished the ’76 Commission on Inauguration Day and in April his Department of Education announced that its number-one priority for American History and Civics K-12 Education Programs would be to advance “the ongoing national reckoning with systemic racism" by funding grants to teachers and students that incorporate “diverse perspectives into teaching and learning in public schools" and singled out two such perspectives: Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, and the 1619 Project.

A day after the new history and civics priorities were announced, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell condemned them as "politicized and divisive" and singled out the 1619 Project, which he said was filled with "divisive, radical, and historically dubious buzzwords and propaganda," teaching "that our country is inherently evil."

Controversies involving the teaching of race-related issues in the schools have continued to get plenty of attention, but battles over “critical race theory” have overshadowed 1619 recently. Still, Jones has continued to be something of a lightning rod, via her high-profile Twitter presence, the University of North Carolina’s decision to deny her tenure, and more recently the decision of a private school in Massachusetts to revoke an invitation for her to speak. And you can be sure that the battle over 1619 will heat up again next month when an expanded version of the project comes out in book form, with the subtitle—“A New Origin Story.”

As I’ve followed this controversy over the past year or so, I’ve been asking myself: What does any of this have to do with the actual teaching of American history in actual classrooms with actual students, which is what I do at work every day? I am committed to the principle that a proper education must be non-partisan, that we teach students how to think, but not what to think, that education is not indoctrination, and I would prefer to ignore partisan—or even academic, partisan-adjacent—debates over the content of my courses. I don’t start my yearly survey of US history in 1619 or 1776, and I’m hoping no one tries to make me.

But the daily newspapers are full of stories about local school board meetings broken up over mask and vaccine mandates, gender policies, and critical race theory. Clearly, education is a battleground and we history teachers are on the front lines. And though private school teachers don’t have public school boards and contentious public meetings to contend with, or state boards of education banning “divisive concepts,” we are not immune from non-history teachers taking an interest in what we teach.

The battle lines seem to be different in private than in public schools. The anti-1619 and CRT forces that are inspired by Fox News may get the upper hand in public schools, at least in the red states. But here, most of the pressure is coming from the other side. The Board of Trustees where I teach has declared us to be an “antiracist school,” and social justice oriented alumni groups, donors, student activists, and a growing body of “diversity equity and inclusion” administrators direct their attention from time-to-time at the history curriculum.

I can imagine that our Trustees would agree with the Biden administration in seeing the 1619 Project as a model for anti-racist history and might write off critics as defenders of a whitewashed version of American history. Ibram X. Kendi, who has spoken at our school, preaches that every policy is either racist or antiracist and you always have to pick a side.

Some 1619 defenders have dismissed critical historians as being too white (AHA) or as “turf-guarding academics" (WAPost) acting in bad faith. The attack on critics of the project was joined by no less an authority than Alex Lichtenstein, the editor of the leading journal of American historians, the American Historical Review, who said the “motley crew” of historian-critics were seeking to discredit a valuable contribution to the discussion of slavery by blowing a small number of “disputable errors” and overstatements out of proportion, perhaps because they were offended that “journalists are practicing history without a license.” 

But Lichtenstein concedes the validity of some of their points, citing the following flaws:

  • The Times’ claim to be making a “radical reorientation” by putting African Americans at the center of American history, which has been a long-term trend in the academy. (For example).
  • “Substituting dramatic overstatement for historical analysis.”
  • Treating “American slavery in isolation from” slavery in the “larger Atlantic World.”
  • “Emphasis on continuity (especially in economic history), rather than change.”
  • The substitution of “race” for class.

Such imperfections, Lichtenstein writes, should “not suffice to dismiss the project in its entirety,” and most criticism seems to have focused on just two essays, Jones’ long opening essay, and Matthew Desmond’s piece on economics, while essays on sugar, Wall Street, urban sprawl, music, public health, and mass incarceration have received little scrutiny and criticism.

Historians will argue over facts and how to interpret them. Politicians will politicize anything and everything. I’m more interested in how the Project is likely to affect the teaching of US history in the schools. There’s plenty of reason to expect a positive impact. The writing is eloquent, it makes valuable documents accessible, and its arguments are often compelling. And if the Times’ claims about the poor quality of teaching about slavery in the nation’s schools are true, then that influence is sorely needed.

And that influence is likely to be immense, whether it is positive or otherwise, given the Times’ status as the nation’s newspaper of record, the endorsement of the project by the Pulitzer committee, and Jones’ tireless promotion of it (on Twitter and in speaking engagements so numerous that she had to hire an assistant to manage her schedule), along with the well-publicized proliferation of companion materials for educators and the soon-to-be released book version. So, what will history education look like in schools that not only adopt 1619 materials but embrace the larger assumptions embedded in the project—assumptions about the nature of progress, human agency, and cause-and-effect?

Connected to these assumptions is a tension between inevitability and contingency. In my experience, students are predisposed to see history as a sequence of events that people had little control over. The Anti-federalist must have been wrong because they lost the debate over the Constitution; the Civil War was inevitable as soon as the ink was dry on the Declaration of Independence; neither Roosevelt nor Truman could have avoided a Cold War with the Soviet Union. I try to poke holes in their fatalism by asking them whether they think their own destinies are inevitable, that their fate is immune to their efforts, which at my school are prodigious. “Do you not have power to shape your chances of getting into the college of your choice?” I ask them. This leads at least a few to concede that people living in the past might also have had some influence over how things turned out.

The 1619 Project strikes a blow against inevitability bias when it pokes holes in the view that progress toward ever greater democracy and freedom in the US has followed an undeniable “arc of justice” set in motion by the American Revolution. Defenders of the Times’ project accuse its critics of a facile faith in that arc, and of overestimating racial progress.

But in its zeal to tear down that narrative, the Project falls into its own, even more corrosive inevitability bias. To her credit, Jones refers to the story of African-American activism as one of “astounding progress,” but overall, the Project, like much of the recent discourse on race in America, leaves a different impression. It focuses more on culture and society than politics, does not have much to say about moments of progress—like the ending of slavery in Northern states after the revolution, the anti-slavery movement, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement—and largely avoids mention of those who fought courageously and sometimes successfully to advance justice and equality. Inspirational models of citizenship like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King are barely mentioned; Harriet Tubman, A. Philip Randolph, Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, and Bayard Rustin are not mentioned at all.*

This gloomier view has become increasingly popular on the American left. It is expressed most conspicuously by a group of writers who control the discourse on race in the current moment. They include Ta-Nehesi Coates, whose analysis of the 2016 election results and best-selling book Between the World and Me, are studies in pessimism about American race relations; Isabella Wilkerson, who compares America’s racial “caste system” to a clever software program that continually “adjusts to the updated needs of the operating system” and holds us, apparently helpless, in the grip of racism; Robin DiAngelo, who tells white people at her workshops not to speak because even their well-intentioned comments are likely to harm black people; and Kendi, whose book on the history of racism, Stamped from the Beginning, finds racism lurking in the hearts of just about everyone, including William Lloyd Garrison, Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, W.E.B. Du Bois, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Hope Franklin, Earl Warren, Barack Obama, and even Kendi himself. In these authors’ “grim view”  of history, every effort to purge racism from our operating system seems destined to nullification by Wilkerson’s diabolical software program and no good deed is untainted by racism, which is an essential element of our hardware.

Jones makes the same point with a DNA analogy, and Times editor Jake Silverstein reaches back to an older biological metaphor. The arrival of those 20 Africans, he writes in his introduction to the 1619 essays, planted a seed that grew into “nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.” But if it is inaccurate to assume that the words “all men are created equal” led in a straight line to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it seems equally unlikely that 1619 led in a straight line to America’s “economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, its diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day.”

Metaphors can clarify at the same time that they distort. Seed, software and DNA metaphors obscure the role of contingency and human agency and how choices matter—not just at one point in time, but at every moment. The arrival of Africans in Virginia in 1619 would not be worth noting if the supply of unfree labor from England hadn’t dried up in the later 17th century. “All men are created equal” might have been an ideological dead end if it weren’t for Frederick Douglass’s agitation, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Lincoln’s proclamation of Emancipation, the Radical Republicans’ Reconstruction Amendments, A. Philip Randolph’s fight for labor rights, Bayard Rustin’s schooling of Martin Luther King Jr. in non-violent strategy, and President Johnson’s masterful legislative wrangling. Thousands of seeds are planted. Only ones we nurture will grow. You can always find an antecedent for some contemporary phenomenon. But giving too much attention to one origin-story needle in the haystack of human experience to explain a contemporary problem—or every problem—is to fall prey to presentism fallacy.

Even at Phillips Exeter, where virtually every student will go on to college, I know that high school will likely be the only time they take a full-year survey of American history. And with the decline of civics education, the 11th grade US history course may be the best chance that American educators have to impress upon their students a sense of what it means to be a democratic citizen of this country. I fear that presenting students with the deterministic sense of fatalism that would seem to flow from essentialist notions of society like the seed metaphor, while deemphasizing the good that past victories have achieved will foster nihilism and hopelessness about the possibility that citizens can have an impact on the course of future events.

History does not have one determinative starting point. It has many key moments and progress is neither inevitable nor impossible. It is always shaped by human action or inaction. Students don’t need a new origin story, or more seed metaphors or theoretical frameworks. They need to study what happened in the past over the long sweep of time, in as much detail as possible, to develop an appreciation of contingency and the role that actual humans can play in the story. Only immersion in the details of history will show them what sort of efforts succeeded or failed, what sort of factors were out of human control, and the degree to which people like them can actually have an impact. Sometimes society seems to resist the most heroic efforts to improve things or it responds to them so slowly as to be imperceptible, and usually in ways no one anticipated. Methods that work in one situation fail miserably under different circumstances. And perhaps most maddeningly of all, any positive advance can be undone by reactionary backlash. Too often, it seems, a step forward is followed by two back.

Some of us will look at this messy story and decide that collective action and political engagement in such causes as anti-racism just aren’t worth the sacrifice and retreat into private life where they have more direct control. Booker T. Washington made a career of advocating that course for Black Americans during the Jim Crow era. And let’s face it: most of us do that most of the time. But a history class should not encourage that outcome by relentlessly focusing too-insistently on the bad outcomes and shining a light into the dark corners of the souls of mostly well-intentioned reformers. Within the bounds of truth, we should give our students ample evidence to suggest that cynicism about human nature, democracy and citizenship may not be warranted.

Everyone will see the arc of history bending in a different direction. I want my students to be able to come up with their own metaphors to describe it, whichever way they see it bending. But as I assemble my syllabi, I want to make sure they have plenty of fodder to support the conclusion that engagement in public life is worth their time and effort, though there will be plenty that points in the other direction. I don’t want to give them false hope or unwarranted optimism, but they should at least come away with a sense of possibility.

Note: *I haven’t conducted my own content analysis of the 1619 Project, so I’m relying on reviews by others.  Those sources will be listed in a forthcoming post on this blog. 

(For links to these reviews and all other sources consulted for this essay, see this separate post)

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