A 1619 Project Update

A new book by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” is displayed at a New York City bookstore on Nov. 17 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The 1619 Project remains in the news, especially with the release of the book, The 1619 Project: A New Origins Story. The PBS News Hour did this story containing an interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones. Here are some excerpts:

“There’s a essay by Dorothy Roberts on how race was constructed. I knew that Martha Jones, I wanted her to write on citizenship. And then there were certain writers where, like Ibram X. Kendi, I think he’s a brilliant scholar, and I didn’t know what he would write, but I knew I wanted to include him in the book. I think one of my favorite essays and one that will probably be the most surprising to readers is the one by Harvard historian Tiya Miles on settler colonialism, Indian removal, and how the five so-called civilized tribes also engaged in chattel slavery. I knew I — we needed to have an essay that dealt with Indian removal, but we had to find the right one. So it was a mix.”

” I knew that there was going to be backlash to this. This is an ambitious and provocative project. The reason the project has to exist is we have wanted to treat slavery as an asterisk. And even a lot of historians are invested in the idea of American exceptionalism. We treat the revolutionary period kind of as divine event. And this project was seeking to unsettle that and to say, yes, we were founded on ideals of freedom, but the practice of slavery. And if you think about 1619 as an origin, that explains really some of our most vexing problems and tensions. So I knew there would be pushback, but no one could predict that state legislatures would be seeking to ban the project, that the president of the United States, Donald Trump at the time, would be castigating the project and passing executive orders against the project. I think that’s really unexpected.”

“You wouldn’t see this type of intensive backlash if millions of Americans didn’t actually care about learning this history. I believe that, if we believe our country is truly great, then it can withstand the light of the truth. And it’s only if you are afraid that somehow the truth will destroy our country that you try to repress it.”

This story tells us, “Seldom these days does a paper edition have such blockbuster draw. New Yorkers not in the habit of seeking out their Sunday Times ventured to bodegas to nab a hard copy. (Today you can find a copy on eBay for around a hundred dollars.) Commentators, such as the Vox correspondent Jamil Smith, lauded the Project—which consisted of eleven essays, nine poems, eight works of short fiction, and dozens of photographs, all documenting the long-fingered reach of American slavery—as an unprecedented journalistic feat. Impassioned critics emerged at both ends of the political spectrum. On the right, a boorish resistance developed that would eventually include everything from the Trump Administration’s error-riddled 1776 Commission report to states’ panicked attempts to purge their school curricula of so-called critical race theory. On the other side, unsentimental leftists, such as the political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr., accused the series of disregarding the struggles of a multiracial working class. But accompanying the salient historical questions was an underlying problem of genre. Journalism is, by its nature, a provisional and fragmentary undertaking—a ‘first draft of history,’ as the saying goes—proceeding in installments that journalists often describe humbly as ‘pieces.’ What are the difficulties that greet a journalistic endeavor when it aspires to function as a more concerted kind of history, and not just any history but a remodelling of our fundamental national narrative?”

The article continues, “In the preface to a new book version of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Times Magazine reporter and the leading force behind the endeavor, recalls that it began, as many journalistic projects do, in the form of a ‘simple pitch.’ She proposed a large-scale public history, harnessing all of the paper’s institutional might and gloss, that would ‘bring slavery and the contributions of Black Americans from the margins of the American story to the center, where they belong.’ The word ‘project’ was chosen to ’emphasize that its work would be ongoing and would not culminate with any single publication,’ the editors wrote. Indeed, the undertaking from the beginning was a cross-platform affair for the Times, with special sections of the newspaper, a series on its podcast ‘The Daily,’ and educational materials developed in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. By academic standards, the proposed argument was not all that provocative. The year 1619 itself has long been depicted as a tragic watershed. Langston Hughes wrote of it, in a poem that serves as the new book’s epigraph, as ‘The great mistake / That Jamestown made / Long ago.’ In 2012, the College of William & Mary launched the ‘Middle Passage Project 1619 Initiative,’ which sponsored academic and public events in anticipation of the approaching quadricentennial. ‘So much of what later becomes definitively ‘American’ is established at Jamestown,’ the organizers wrote. But the legacy-media muscle behind the 1619 Project would accomplish what its predecessors in poetry and academia did not, thrusting the date in question into the national lexicon. There was something coyly American about the effort—public knowledge inculcated by way of impeccable branding.”

The article also tells us, “The historical debates that followed are familiar by now. Four months after the special issue was released, the Times Magazine published a letter, jointly signed by five historians, taking issue with certain ‘errors and distortions’ in the Project. The authors objected, especially, to a line in the introductory essay by Hannah-Jones stating that ‘one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.’ Several months later, Politico published a piece by Leslie M. Harris, a historian and professor at Northwestern who’d been asked to help fact-check the 1619 Project. She’d ‘vigorously disputed’ the same line, to no avail. ‘I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking,’ she wrote. ‘So far, that’s exactly what has happened.’ The pushback from scholars was not just a matter of factuality. History is, in some senses, no less provisional than journalism. Its facts are subject to interpretation and disagreement—and also to change. But one detected in the historians’ complaints a discomfort with the 1619 Project’s fourth-estate bravado, its temperamental challenge to the slow and heavily qualified work of scholarly revelation. This concern was arguably borne out further in the Times’ corrections process. Hannah-Jones amended the line in question; in both the magazine and the book, it now states that ‘some of the colonists’ were motivated by Britain’s growing abolitionist sentiment, a phrasing that neither retreats from the original claim nor shores it up convincingly. In the book, Hannah-Jones also clarifies another passage that had been under dispute, which had claimed that ‘for the most part’ Black Americans fought for freedom ‘alone.’ The original wording remains, but a qualifying clause has been added: ‘For the most part, Black Americans fought back alone, never getting a majority of white Americans to join and support their freedom struggles.’ As Carlos Lozada pointed out in the Washington Post, the addition seems to redefine the meaning of the word ‘alone’ rather than revise or replace it. In my view, the original wording was acceptable as a rhetorical flourish, whereas the amended version sounds fuzzy.” It goes on to give us a summary of the major essays in the book.

This article tells us about a Fascist lawmaker in Oklahoma. “An Oklahoma lawmaker is proposing a ban of the 1619 Project curriculum, which centers on Black Americans’ experience before and after slavery, in the classroom. Roland Republican Rep. Jim Olsen’s House Bill 2988 would ban teaching the Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project by The New York Times that has been turned into a curriculum to better educate students about the experiences of Black people in the United States. The New York Times describes the project as a way ‘to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.’ Olsen’s bill would ban it. It would also prohibit teaching the following:

  • “Any teaching that America has more culpability, in general, than other nations for the institution of slavery.
  • “That one race is the unique oppressor in the institution of slavery.
  • “That another race is the unique victim in the institution of slavery.
  • “That America, in general, had slavery more extensively and for a later period of time than other nations.
  • “The primary and overarching purpose for the founding of America was the initiation and perpetuation of slavery.”

The article continues, “K-12 schools that are found in violation of the proposed measure would face a penalty of up to 5% of their state allocation monthly. Colleges and universities in violation would lose up to 10% of their state allocation monthly. Oklahoma’s legislative session will convene in February. The measure is similar to ones introduced in Arkansas, Mississippi and Iowa, where it was unsuccessful. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton had previously introduced federal legislation to ban the curriculum, which failed in 2020. Oklahoma is already facing an ongoing legal challenge for its so-called Critical Race Theory ban. ACLU attorneys argue the ban is prohibiting free speech in the state’s classrooms. Earlier this year, Olsen compared the push to ban abortion to the work of abolishing slavery, saying, ‘If I had my choice, I guess I’d be a slave. At least the slave has his life.’ ” Spoken like someone who has no idea about slavery.

A scholar who supports the 1619 Project’s assertion that the protection of slavery was a motivating factor for the American Revolution is Professor Woody Holton, who recently published a new book, Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution. In this review of Holton’s book, Gene Procknow writes, “Holton builds off his Forced Founders book and presents a similar thesis to the New York Times’ 1619 Project that one of the primary causes of the Revolution was the colonists’ fear that the British would end slavery in the Americas. Holton’s passionate advocacy for this thesis is evident in both the book and subsequent public book talks. Holton tweeted seventy-six examples of slaveholders deciding to rebel to preserve their enslaved populations to buttress his position further. Inviting controversy, following the book’s publication this fall, Holton engaged in a high-profile debate with Gordon Wood, who asserts an ideological, not a slavery preservation origin. Historian Jack Rakove and other scholars who dispute the Project 1619 findings have written scathing reviews of Holton’s theses. Given Holton’s zealous interest in this topic, he could have focused his efforts on this issue and not written another secondary source-heavy overview of the revolution. In contrast to Gordon Wood’s mentor Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Holton could have written a dedicated geneses book entitled the ‘Racial Origins of the American Revolution.’ “

In this review of Professor Holton’s book, the historian Jack Rakove writes, “There are several problems with Holton’s account of the origins of the revolution. First, it is hard to imagine why calculations of economic interests would drive Americans to confront the dominant naval power of the Atlantic world, which could deploy its army nearly anywhere it wished. It is difficult to aggregate the scattered economic grievances of the colonists and ever reach a point when the potential benefits of defying the empire would outweigh the obvious costs and risks. Second, when the crisis of independence did break in 1774, after the government of King George III and Lord North had Parliament adopt the Coercive Acts to punish Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party, it erupted precisely over the constitutional points that British and American leaders had spent the past decade disputing. Did Parliament have a right to legislate for the colonies ‘in all cases whatsoever,’ as its Declaratory Act of 1766 had proclaimed? When Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, it converted that abstract claim into a draconian program of punitive legislation. In nearly every colony, that gross strategic miscalculation led to the collapse of British rule in America, as the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, provincial conventions and local committees (known as the Association) seized power at every level of government. The most problematic argument Holton makes involves his interpretation of Lord Dunmore’s proclamation of November 1775, which promised freedom to any enslaved person in Virginia who escaped to join the British forces. Numerous colonists read the Virginia governor’s proclamation as a clarion call for a general slave rebellion, the dread fear that regularly coursed through Southern society. ‘No other document,’ Holton suggests, ‘did more than Dunmore’s proclamation to convert white residents of Britain’s most populous American colony to the cause of independence.’ This argument supports a controversial claim made by the New York Times 1619 Project, which posits that one main cause of the American decision for independence was the perceived need to protect the system of plantation chattel slavery from British meddling. I am one of a group of revolutionary-era historians who have publicly rejected this specific claim about the link between the defense of slavery and the American decision for independence, as well as its implications for how we think about the looming 250th anniversary of independence and indeed the very meaning of the revolution. Here is the basis for our criticisms.”

Rakove continues, “Holton sees the Dunmore Proclamation more as a war measure than an abolitionist manifesto. He knows that a half-century would pass before ending West Indian slavery became a serious issue in Britain. But he still believes that colonial opinion on independence remained cautious and uncertain, and that fears of an enslaved people’s rebellion and frontier warfare with Native Americans were critical in the movement toward independence. Two more Ts are thus added to Holton’s roster of American grievances: traitorous slaves and treacherous Indians. But in our view the basic framework for a decision on independence had already been set by the summer of 1775, and its authors were the elite decision-makers whose importance Holton doubts. On the American side, the crucial question was whether to offer some concessions to Britain or even send negotiators to London. On the British side, the question was whether to pursue the strategy of military repression that had already failed at Concord and Bunker Hill (the first of the many armed engagements that Holton narrates so well). Rather than rethink this strategy, the ministry of Lord North doubled down on it, with the active support of George III (who was not, by the way, the mere figurehead monarch whom Holton casts him to be, more akin to Elizabeth II than the great Elizabeth I). In effect, each side was presenting unacceptable ultimatums to the other, and neither relented. The British imposed additional penalties on the Americans, declaring them traitors, disdaining their petitions, subjecting their merchant ships to confiscation and hiring German mercenaries. The Dunmore Proclamation was one more alarm that only confirmed what American leaders already knew. Had Dunmore sailed home to Britain rather than try to govern the Old Dominion from a warship cruising the Chesapeake, the result would have been the same.”

The conservative pundit George F. Will writes in this article, “The 1619 Project’s tendentiousness reeks of political purpose. The Times’s original splashy assertion – slightly fudged after the splash garnered a Pulitzer Prize – was that the American Revolution, the most important event in our history, was shameful because a primary reason it was fought was to preserve slavery.” That’s not quite an honest rendition. The 1619 Project doesn’t say the Revolution was shameful. The original claim in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay told us race lay at the center of the Revolution and made the claim that protection of slavery was the primary motivator. Hannah-Jones has since backed off that original claim, which Will doesn’t tell us, to say it was a motivator for some of the colonists.

Will continues, “The war was supposedly ignited by a November 1775 British offer of freedom to Blacks who fled slavery and joined British forces. Well. That offer came after increasingly volcanic American reactions to various British provocations: After the 1765 Stamp ActAfter the 1770 Boston MassacreAfter the 1773 Boston Tea PartyAfter the 1774 Coercive Acts (including closure of Boston’s port) and other events of ‘The Long Year of Revolution’ (the subtitle of Mary Beth Norton’s ‘1774‘). And after, in 1775, the April 19 battles of Lexington and Concord, the June 17 battle of Bunker Hill and George Washington on July 3 assuming command of the Continental Army. Writing history is not like doing physics. But event A cannot have caused event B if B began before A.”

Will also writes, “Addressing the American Council of Trustees and Alumni last month, Gordon S. Wood, today’s foremost scholar of America’s Founding, dissected the 1619 Project’s contentions. When the Revolution erupted, Britain ‘was not threatening to abolish slavery in its empire,’ which included lucrative, slavery-dependent sugar-producing colonies in the Caribbean. Wood added: ‘If the Virginian slaveholders had been frightened of British abolitionism, why only eight years after the war ended would the board of visitors or the trustees of the College of William & Mary, wealthy slaveholders all, award an honorary degree to Granville Sharp, the leading British abolitionist at the time? Had they changed their minds so quickly? … The New York Times has no accurate knowledge of Virginia’s Revolutionary culture and cannot begin to answer these questions.’ “

Will says, “The Times’s political agenda requires ignoring what Wood knows: ‘It was the American colonists who were interested in abolitionism in 1776. … Not only were the northern states the first slaveholding governments in the world to abolish slavery, but the United States became the first nation in the world to begin actively suppressing the despicable international slave trade. The New York Times has the history completely backwards.’ Wood’s doctoral dissertation adviser in 1960 to 1964 was Bernard Bailyn, the title of whose best-known book, ‘The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,’ conveys a refutation of the 1619 Project’s premise that the Revolution originated from base economic motives. When Bailyn died a year after the 1619 Project was launched, the Times’s obituary noted that he had challenged the ‘Progressive Era historians … who saw the founders’ revolutionary rhetoric as a mask for economic interests.’ Actually, the rhetoric gave momentum to ideas that were the Revolution.”

So far not so bad, but Will goes off the rails next. “The 1619 Project, which might already be embedded in school curricula near you, reinforces the racial monomania of those progressives who argue that the nation was founded on, and remains saturated by, ‘systemic racism.’ This racial obsession is instrumental; it serves a radical agenda that sweeps beyond racial matters. It is the agenda of clearing away all impediments, intellectual and institutional, to — in progressivism’s vocabulary — the ‘transformation’ of the nation. The United States will be built back better when it has been instructed to be ashamed of itself and is eager to discard its disreputable heritage.” Will here seems to deny the existence of systemic racism and treats any use of the 1619 Project, even if a teacher uses it to get students to critique it, as some sort of evil conspiracy. Will here is serving the interests of racists around the country.

Will claims, “The 1619 Project aims to erase (in Wood’s words) ‘the Revolution and the principles that it articulated – liberty, equality and the well-being of ordinary people.’ These ideas are, as Wood says, the adhesives that bind our exceptional nation whose people have shared principles, not a shared ancestry. The Times says ‘nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional’ flows from ‘slavery and the anti-black racism it required.’ So, the 1619 Project’s historical illiteracy is not innocent ignorance. Rather, it is maliciousness in the service of progressivism’s agenda, which is to construct a thoroughly different nation on the deconstructed rubble of what progressives hope will be the nation’s thoroughly discredited past.” This criticism is ham-handed sophistry on Will’s part. He lies about what Professor Wood said. Professor Wood said, “But to make 1619 the birth date of the nation and to make slavery and segregation the frame for interpreting all of our turbulent and complicated past is not only false to the totality of our history but it will divide us further and undermine whatever sense of comity and unity we have left. Ordinary Americans seem to be becoming increasingly aware of this. The Revolution and the principles that it articulated—liberty, equality, and the well-being of ordinary people—are really the only things that hold us Americans together and make us a single people. We are not a nation in any traditional meaning of the term, that is, a people with a common ancestry, and we never have been. John Adams doubted at the outset that we could ever be a real nation. In the United States, he said, there was nothing like ‘the Patria of the Romans, the Fatherland of the Dutch, or the Patrie of the French.’ All he saw in America was an astonishing diversity of religious denominations and ethnicities. In 1813, he counted at least 19 different religious sects in the country. ‘We are such an Hotch potch of people,’ he concluded, ‘such an omnium gatherum of English, Irish, German, Dutch, Sweedes, French, &c. that it is difficult to give a name to the Country, characteristic of the people.’ ” Professor Wood doesn’t say the 1619 Project seeks to erase the Revolution, nor does he say it seeks to erase liberty, equality, and the well-being of ordinary people. Rather, Professor Wood is saying “to make 1619 the birth date of the nation and to make slavery and segregation the frame for interpreting all of our turbulent and complicated past” would divide the populace.

thomaguery/iStock/Getty

I also came across this article, telling us, “The recent spate of laws restricting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom has generated outrage from some educators, and praise from others. And it’s rekindled a perennial debate: Who gets to decide what history we teach? Over the past year, Republican state lawmakers have championed measures that could prevent teachers from teaching about the history of racist oppression in the United States, or in one case, describing slavery as anything other than a departure from American ideals. At the same time, parents have poured into school board meetings in districts across the country, challenging lessons and books about discrimination, bias, and anti-racism—but also about historical events, like school segregation. In many cases, critics of these materials and lessons argue that schools are placing too much emphasis on the darker moments in American history, to students’ detriment. ‘The narrow and slanted obsession on historical mistakes reveals a heavily biased agenda, one that makes children hate their country, each other, and/or themselves,’ wrote a representative from Williamson County Moms for Liberty, a group in Tennessee, in a complaint about books on the civil rights movement used in a 2nd grade curriculum. But this central conflict—how should educators portray and make sense of the nation’s past—is hardly new. For decades, competing interests have fought over this issue—in controversies over revisions to state standards, in (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to develop national history standards, and in local challenges to curricula and other materials.”

The article also tells us, “There are no national history or civics standards in the United States. Each state develops its own—50 states, 50 different sets of criteria for what students should learn in social studies. These guidelines are usually developed by committees of educators, curriculum specialists at the state department of education, academics, and community members. States update them periodically—generally every seven to 10 years— through a revision process. State boards of education, which vote to adopt or not adopt revisions, are the final decisionmakers. For reference, the Common Core State Standards were an attempt to get states to adopt similar learning goals for math and English/language arts across the country. But ultimately states made their own decisions on adopting and revising them. Hammering out what should be in history and social studies standards has long been a contentious process, underpinned by deeper debates about politics and values. Take Texas’ social studies standards revision in 2010 as an example. The majority-conservative school board voted to require students to examine the “unintended consequences” of affirmative action and Title IX, and to encourage high schoolers to question the separation of church and state. Critics of these and other changes accused the board of pushing a right-wing agenda, but the conservative members argued that they were counteracting long-standing liberal bias in the field.”

It continues, “More recently, in North Carolina, opponents of new standards have argued that they lean too far left. Revised standards, adopted in February 2021, place more emphasis on the experiences of marginalized groups and require learning about discrimination in U.S. history. Proponents of the new document say it places a long-overdue emphasis on how racism has shaped the country and our notions of citizenship. Critics argue that the standards paint too negative a view of America’s past. But not all the differences between states come down to a left vs. right political bent. There’s also a great deal of variation in how specific social studies standards are about what to teach. Some states focus more on broad concepts and themes. Others note key eras, actors, and events that students need to study and interpret. In Rhode Island, for instance, 3rd and 4th graders are expected to ‘demonstrate an understanding that innovations, inventions, change, and expansion cause increased interaction among people.’ Tennessee’s standards are more specific, asking 3rd graders to ‘identify the economic, political, and religious reasons for founding the Thirteen Colonies and the role of indentured servitude and slavery in their settlement.’ The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, put out a report earlier this year giving higher ratings to states with more specific standards. Those results can be found here.”

According to the article, “There are a few sets of guiding documents at the national level that address social studies skills. But none of them outline what specific content students should know. The most well-known of these might be the C3 Framework, developed by the National Council for the Social Studies with a coalition of teachers, academics, and professional organizations in 2013. The framework doesn’t list names and dates; instead, it was designed as a conceptual guide for states to use as they developed standards in geography, civics, economics, and history. It focuses on four skill-based dimensions:

  1. “Developing questions and planning inquiries;
  2. “Applying disciplinary concepts and tools;
  3. “Evaluating sources and using evidence;
  4. “And communicating conclusions and taking informed action.

“The common-core standards also includes a section on social studies literacy. It outlines expectations for how students parse informational text in history, politics, and other related fields—saying, for instance, that middle schoolers should have the ability to distinguish between fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment. It’s not happenstance that these national guides skirt the question of what history is most important to teach: The decision is in the crosshairs of the culture wars, and it’s incredibly hard to come to consensus.”

We also learn, “National history standards were last considered almost three decades ago, in 1992. Bringing together about 200 educators and academics from across the political spectrum, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities funded an extensive development process that spanned almost two years and more than 6,000 drafts. But on the eve of the final version’s public release, the document sparked a firestorm of controversy. Lynne Cheney, the head of the NEH when the project was funded, came out in strong opposition to the standards her agency had crafted, saying they were too concerned with ‘political correctness.’ The U.S. Senate voted to condemn the standards, 99-1. (Cheney is also mother to Liz Cheney, the Republican congresswoman from Wyoming who sits on the commission charged with investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.) In the years since, echoes of these concerns have reverberated through critiques of national efforts to diversify and broaden schools’ telling of the American story—even before the recent debate over ‘critical race theory’ exploded. At the high school level, there is one course that operates under a uniform set of national standards for U.S. history: the Advancement Placement course for that subject. While states all set their own guidelines for general high school history courses, AP teachers all work from the same frameworks and their students take the same tests. In 2012, the College Board released an overhauled AP U.S. History framework. A few months after it went into effect during the 2014-15 school year, Republican state legislators and school board members started to voice complaints: The new framework put too strong an emphasis on the negative aspects of American history and didn’t underscore ‘American exceptionalism.’ The pushback eventually led to another rewrite, which offered more detail on the founding fathers, the U.S.’s positive contributions to world affairs, and the ‘productive role’ of free enterprise.”

The article says, “Even as efforts to come to a definitive consensus on what to teach in history are thwarted again and again, organizations haven’t stopped trying. Most recently, a national panel of dozens of academics, educators, and civic nonprofit leaders released the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy, a history and civics framework for K-12. The guiding document—which its creators are quick to emphasize is not an attempt to create national standards—centers on the idea of ‘reflective patriotism,’ or the notion that students should learn a commitment to American ideals while also being able to recognize when the country has failed to meet them. At the macro-level, about half of state departments prepare a list of approved resources for districts to choose from. This can include textbooks, but also curricula or other materials from publishers and social studies education organizations. Many of these states also allow districts to apply for waivers for materials that are not on these lists. The rest of the states allow districts to pick their own. Because different states require that different content be covered in their standards, commercial publishers often create several versions of their materials to meet these competing requirements. This can lead to the same textbook telling vastly different stories in different states, as illustrated by a 2020 New York Times’ comparison of U.S. History textbooks from Texas and California. Of course, textbooks and year-long curricula are not the only resources that teachers use in the classroom. Many school systems also choose to adopt other materials at the district level, like standalone units that cover certain historical periods or aspects of civic life. For example, Chicago Public Schools mandated a curriculum on the history of police torture in the city. And individual teachers often bring in other resources that they source or create themselves. Groups like the Bill of Rights Institute, the Zinn Education Project, the National Constitution Center, and Learning for Justice all provide standalone lessons on certain historical events or civic ideas. There’s also a host of social studies materials of varying quality available on lesson-sharing websites, like Teachers Pay Teachers. Because there are so many different resources available, and because the landscape is so fragmented, it’s very difficult to say definitively what materials teachers are actually using in classrooms—despite the existence of state-approved adoption lists.”

So how can we know which of these outside sources are any good? “There’s not much external vetting of social studies materials—at least, not compared to the evaluation metrics that have been developed for other core subjects. From time to time, high-profile examples of lessons gone wrong make headlines, often around historically inaccurate or insensitive treatment of slavery. But there’s no one source that’s responsible. Sometimes, activities that ask students to play-act as enslaved Africans or justify slavery have come from lesson-sharing websites. Other times, problematic language is in the textbook itself—like in 2015, when a Texas student highlighted an excerpt in a McGraw Hill book that called enslaved people ‘workers.’ Recently, Johns Hopkins University attempted to conduct a broader survey of the landscape. Its Institute for Education Policy released a series of ‘knowledge maps’ this summer that outline the content covered (and omitted) in five sets of social studies materials. In deciding what content to look for in these materials, Johns Hopkins considered what knowledge students would need to be successful in college courses, and consulted social studies knowledge standards in Canadian provinces and the United Kingdom. ‘It’s kind of a landscape analysis of the potential areas that a social studies curriculum could attend to,’ said Ashley Rogers Berner, the director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. ‘We’re not making a normative judgment about what should be covered.’ That’s up to individual school systems, she said. And therein lies the challenge of trying to evaluate social studies materials, or even social studies standards: It requires making normative judgments about what’s ‘good’ and what’s not good, what’s important to include and what can be left out. Is it better to place more emphasis on the founding fathers, or on the economic and social lives of regular people? How do we define ‘citizenship’? Should teachers say that slavery is a core part of our founding, or a deviation from our ideals? These kinds of questions are animating the current national firestorm over history education. And they’re one of the factors driving the steps that Republicans have taken, in 11 states, to restrict how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom.”

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