State Lawmakers Out To Cancel-Culture '1619 Project' In Schools
Donald Trump's dumb "1776 Commission," which sought to Make American History Great Again by teaching children a load of patriotic kitsch, was eliminated by executive order on Joe Biden's first day. But the desire to grab hold of history and make sure schools teach patriotism is still just as strong on the Right as it was when the Culture Wars got rolling back in the 1980s, when the bestseller lists were full of moral panic screeds about how nobody knows nothing nomore, causing them to use triple negatives, too. Conservatives' latest educational panic, and a direct target of the Trump panel's ire, involves the New York Times's 1619 Project, which scared conservatives because its stated goal was 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."
Not surprisingly, a number of state legislatures, where educational policies are actually made, wanted to get in on the act, so at least three states have pending legislation that would ban the use of the 1619 Project and the Pulitzer Center's curriculum based on it. Legislators pushing the 1619 bans in Iowa, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Missouri insist the 1619 Project is "racially divisive" and that it gets history completely wrong, mostly because how can anyone teach American history except in the way the bills' supporters learned it? Any fool knows that America is about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, not the human beings they owned as property.
As Sarah Schwartz reports at Education Week,
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."
And all three would cut state funding to any school that uses the project or the Pulitzer Center's curriculum, in proportion to the amount of time spent teaching the material. Just to be extra assholish about it, the Iowa bill would also punish the use of "any similarly developed curriculum," which isn't chilling and overly broad at all.
Schwartz also notes that the bills all use language very similar to Sen. Tom Cotton's proposed federal law banning the use of the 1619 Project, although presumably none of them include his subsequent explanation that the Founders saw slavery as "the necessary evil upon which the union was built."
Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian of education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, says that unlike earlier disputes about how to teach history, the fight over the 1619 Project isn't just about "who gets included in the story" of America. Rather,
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. [...] I think the Republicans are right when they say the 1619 Project is a threat. I just think it's a good threat.
That echo of John Lewis's "good trouble" seems quite deliberate — and is much appreciated.
And wouldn't you know it, Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning lead essay in the 1619 Project, grew up in Iowa, one of the three states where legislators seek to ban the curriculum. In a now-deleted Twitter thread preserved by Schwartz, Jones wrote,
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.
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.
Fortunately, state and national organizations for the teaching of social studies are pushing back against the bills, and the Arkansas measure has already been killed in committee. The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Did You Have To Ask?), also pulled a companion bill that was, if anything, even worse. That bill would have prohibited schools from offering
any courses, classes, events or activities that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government; promote division between, resentment of or social justice for a particular group; are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group; or advocate the solidarity of or isolation of students based on a particular characteristic.
Lowery's bill, which we have to think was unconstitutionally broad, would have held back a percentage of state funding not only from public schools but also from public colleges and universities that ran afoul of it. Gosh, why on earth would Lowery have pulled a measure that looks like it would have eliminated, say, African American Studies programs?
CNN reports that the Mississippi bill also failed to make it out of committee, and that the sponsor of a similar bill in South Dakota pulled his bill so he could work on his very important Black History Month resolution that blames Democrats for slavery and all of America's racial problems (that too, was rejected by the full state House on a 64 to 4 vote). The Missouri bill is still active, though, and was the target of a blistering editorial by the Kansas City Star yesterday, which noted the gross irony of Republicans whining about "cancel culture" while seeking to literally ban an entire curriculum for political reasons.
Unfortunately, Iowa's bill to ban the 1619 Project curriculum (or anything similar, mind you) in public schools and in higher education advanced out of a state House subcommittee Tuesday, and will now be considered by the full Education Committee. Its sponsor, Republican state Rep. Skyler Wheeler, seems like a fine human being; at a subcommittee meeting, he proclaimed,
The 1619 Project seeks to tear down America, not lift her up. [...] It seeks to divide, not unify. It aims to distort facts, not merely teach them. It does so as leftist political propaganda masquerading as history.
The Des Moines Register article on the bill is a good read; it notes that teachers who have used essays and art from the Pulitzer Center's 1619 curriculum say their students are really engaging with the material, which proves just how dangerous it is.
We'll keep you up to date on the next developments (there will be more) in this ongoing squirmish in the culture war. Maybe as a compromise, Republicans will allow the use of the 1619 Project as long as each class session begins with the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of the Star Spangled Banner, and a video clip of the single line from Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech that Republicans approve of.
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