Social Studies

Lawmakers Push to Ban ‘1619 Project’ From Schools

By Sarah Schwartz — February 03, 2021 9 min read
Collage of an American Flag.

The school curriculum linked to the New York Times’ 1619 Project— an initiative that aims to reframe U.S. history by putting the legacy of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at its center—is once again the target of Republican lawmakers, who seek to ban the materials in three states.

The three bills, recently introduced by state legislators in Arkansas, Iowa, and Mississippi, argue that the lessons misrepresent U.S. history. The Arkansas and Mississippi bills call the 1619 Project “a racially divisive and revisionist account;” the Iowa bill claims that it “attempts to deny or obfuscate the fundamental principles upon which the United States was founded.”

All propose that school districts choosing to use the curriculum lose part of their state funding, in proportion to the time and resources devoted to teaching the material.

The project garnered intense public interest when it was published in 2019, with New Yorkers lining up on the street to receive copies. And it has received critical acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize for journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ flagship essay in the collection.

The bills all use the same or similar language as legislation proposed in July by U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, who sought to ban all U.S. schools from using the materials. And they echo proposals by former President Donald Trump, who, in his final few months in office, said he would ban states from teaching the project, accused history educators of teaching children to “hate their own country,” and convened a 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic education.”

Previous challenges to the 1619 curriculum, from Trump and Cotton, were mostly symbolic, said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Federal education law prevents the recommendation or banning of specific curricula at the national level.

“At the state level, it’s a different ball of wax,” he said, noting that these statehouse challenges could prove more substantive. “Historically, school curriculum has been determined at the state level.”

Whether these bills pass or not, they demonstrate the persistence of backlash to curricula that center Black history and Black stories, said Stephanie P. Jones, an assistant professor of education at Grinnell College. Attempts to gloss over the more challenging parts of the country’s story in schools didn’t start with the Trump presidency, and they won’t end with its conclusion, Jones said.

“This type of mishandling of curriculum has been in place since U.S. public schools have been in place,” she said. “They were not designed to educate Black children, and they were not designed to educate white children to be critical of anything related to the foundations of this country.”

Still, for Zimmerman, something about this cultural conversation feels different.

“Most disputes over history since the 1920s in this country have been about who gets included in the story,” he said. Movements for representation resulted in more people of color, and more women, being inserted into the dominant narrative of continual progress toward a more perfect union.

“This is the first time we’re debating in a substantive way not just who should be included, but what their inclusion does to the story,” Zimmerman said. “I think the Republicans are right when they say the 1619 Project is a threat. I just think it’s a good threat.”

Social studies groups push back

The 1619 Project, a series of essays conceived by Hannah-Jones and published by the Times Magazine, commemorates the 400th anniversary of the date the first enslaved Africans were brought to the American colonies. Its stated aim is 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.”

The curriculum is a separate entity, a series of reading guides and activities created by the Pulitzer Center and released concurrently with the Times Magazine issue, designed to support educators who want to teach the project. In September of 2019, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that copies of the project would be distributed to every high school in the district.

On Twitter, Hannah-Jones spoke out against the bill in Iowa, where she grew up. “Iowa public schools are what gave me my start in journalism in high school, where I took the Black studies course that taught me the year 1619,” she wrote.

“That a bill now exists seeking to censor my 1619 work from other Iowa public school students is shocking & sad … Attempting to control what teachers can teach in the name of patriotism is seeking indoctrination not education. Education should open our minds, not close them. The children of my home state deserve better than that.”

Arkansas state Representative Mark Lowery, Iowa state Representative Skyler Wheeler, and Mississippi Senator Angela Burks Hill, who introduced the bills seeking to ban teaching the curriculum, did not respond to requests for comment.

Stefanie Wager, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, said that she sees “a little bit of irony in the bills.” While Republican lawmakers usually champion the right to free speech, they’re now attempting to quell dissenting voices in the classroom, she said.

Wager has heard frustration from members in state councils that lawmakers are choosing to intervene on this one resource, when materials selection is “normally a non-issue” in these states. The Iowa Council for the Social Studies mentioned this in a statement to Education Week, writing that the proposed legislation would “take away local control and dictate what can and cannot be taught in Iowa,” which would be “inconsistent” with the ICSS’ values.

Cleopatra Warren, a high school economics and history teacher at Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Atlanta, who is also a teacher fellow with the Pulitzer Center, said the proposed legislation felt like an attempt to “other” Black children—"reminiscent of slave codes, Black codes, and Jim Crow laws which forbade Blacks from reading, writing, or learning about their history,” she said. Preventing teachers from using the curriculum promotes a singular narrative that centers whiteness, she said.

Michelle Bacon Curry, a high school English teacher in the Iowa City area who has used the curriculum in African American literature and contemporary literature classes, said that a ban on the materials would only cause her to double down on her instructional goals. She’s taught some of the lessons to ground students in the history and themes of poems they’ve read in class.

“It would make me feel that I had more of a responsibility and more of a commitment to making sure that I was doing the fundamental job of an educator,” Curry said: making sure that her students have access to curriculum that encourages them to think for themselves.

History education should invite debate, not stifle it

Attempts to ban the materials “stem from a really unfortunate misreading of the project itself,” said Mark Schulte, the Pulitzer Center’s education director.

The lessons aren’t designed to convince students to believe certain ideas, but rather to encourage them to question, he said: What would it mean to center the experience of Black Americans in our telling of U.S. history? What if we understood the beginning of slavery in this country as a foundational moment?

“It’s deliberately provocative,” said Schulte. “It’s the kind of thing teachers love, because it gets students thinking, it gets them debating.” This week, the center announced the launch of a new online network for educators using the materials.

It’s important to teach students about the history of “struggle and contestation” in the United States, said Warren, the Atlanta teacher. She uses the 1619 Project curriculum to discuss the transatlantic slave trade and institutional slavery and to teach the importance of primary sources—especially those that shine a light on the experiences of Black people and other people of color.

“Not having the capacity to bring this alive in my classroom would involve an erasure,” she said.

While the 1619 Project has seen popularity with many teachers, it’s also faced criticism from some historians, who object to the interpretations and conclusions that the essays draw—such as the claim that one of the primary reasons the colonies decided to declare independence was to preserve the institution of slavery.

But these critiques shouldn’t preclude teachers from bringing the material into their classrooms, Zimmerman said. Teachers don’t have to—and in fact, shouldn’t—present the 1619 Project’s conclusions as “unalloyed truth,” Zimmerman argues. The goal isn’t just to replace one narrative with another.

“Any good social studies teacher is certainly using a variety of things in their classroom, and asking their students to critique what they are reading,” said Wager of NCSS. “The work of historians, the work of social studies teachers, is engaging students in uncovering that evidence, and challenging and weighing that evidence. To try to squash that, or stop that in any way, is not the mark of a quality social studies educator.”

Arkansas Council for the Social Studies President Olivia Lewis issued a statement asking legislators to rescind the bill, along with another that would prohibit teaching certain courses on race, gender, and social justice.

“Both bills convey a misunderstanding of history and social studies education as a set of static facts that teachers present to students. … Social studies teachers and students must have the opportunity to engage in inquiry and debate without fear of retaliation,” Lewis wrote in a letter to the Arkansas House Education Committee.

Calls on lawmakers to focus on the pandemic

Omitting difficult truths from the historical record is harmful, said Jones of Grinnell College. It leaves students without the tools to make sense of the present—and can erode their trust in the education they received when they do eventually learn about knowledge that’s been kept from them, she said.

Zimmerman hopes that this conversation about how history is told, the study of historiography, enters the classroom.

“Show the 1619 Project to the kids, and then the bills ... that are attempting to restrict it or gut it,” he said. In an ideal world, teachers could lead conversations about what’s in conflict in these debates, Zimmerman said, though he noted that pressure to meet standards and prepare students for standardized tests makes it harder to find time for some of these meatier discussions.

And tackling these issues amid a pandemic, possibly through a screen, brings its own set of challenges. Curry, the Iowa English teacher, criticized Rep. Wheeler for introducing a bill that she feels would further impede teachers’ ability to do their jobs well—but also for choosing to prioritize this issue as COVID-19 continues to spread in the state.

Jones, who as a teacher educator has worried for months about COVID-19’s effect on the recruitment and retention of teachers, raised another concern: If educators dedicated to deep, critical social studies leave the profession because of the pandemic, it may be harder to garner support for this kind of instruction.

“I’m worried about who might not return,” Jones said.

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