Did you ever have a life-changing teacher? I did. My high-school history teacher would ask me tough questions and wouldn’t bail me out with easy answers. He helped me see the importance of other perspectives and injected my mind with a healthy skepticism of all ideology. Great teachers are like that. They model intellectual courage and insist on viewpoint diversity. They point their students to a lifelong quest for truth.
The 1619 Project’s curriculum, created by the Pulitzer Center (no relation to the prizes) for The New York Times, fails to give teachers and students a reliable resource — because instead of treating history as inquiry, it uses history for crude ideological ends.
Take, for example, the curriculum’s use of “erasure” poetry, which, when applied to primary sources, can supposedly “lay bare the real purpose of the document or transform it into something wholly new.” In this lesson, students choose a historic document and erase, or blot out, whatever content they choose, leaving behind only the words that convey their own message.
Among the documents the curriculum subjects to “erasure poetry” is the Declaration of Independence, which established equality and liberty as the twin ideals of our nation.
This lesson, and nine others like it, offer a “reframing” the 1619 Project says will “challenge historical narratives, redefine national memory and build a better world.” But all it really does is give students prepackaged, ready-made answers; it is history in a box.
The problem with this approach is that history told from a place of omniscience — whether it is the 1619 Project or Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” — gives students no reason to ask questions themselves. Seeking mainly to settle scores, such history lends itself to conspiracy theorizing and the division of historical actors into good guys and bad, with no one in between.
Whether done from the left or the right, this isn’t history but polemic. And it’s dangerous, because today’s civics and history lessons form tomorrow’s United States.
Polarized times render ideologically charged history and civics lessons especially tempting. Instead of stoking this tendency, sound history and civics instruction should confound it. The most effective antidote to history as a Manichean fable is viewpoint diversity: Point-counterpoint narratives from scholars who disagree should cite primary-source documents whose study invites a conversation, not knee-jerk emotivism.
Viewpoint-diverse inquiry does not mean refraining from judging the past. Rather, it helps to ensure that when students do render judgment, they are using sound historical evidence and civic reasoning drawn from multiple perspectives.
In strong history and civic education, teachers and students confront the whole of American history, including the evil and brutality of slavery. Students should read the narratives of enslaved people, study the writings of abolitionists and come to know why Frederick Douglass, the 19th-century escaped slave, statesman and abolitionist, called the actions of slave owners “an outrage upon the soul — a war upon the immortal spirit.”
Douglass, whose story ought to be known to every American high-school and college student, is conspicuous in his near-absence from the 1619 Project. Yet his approach to the study of history and civic learning could have helped the 1619 Project’s efforts to “build a better world.”
After Douglass’ dramatic escape from his enslavement, he took a leading part in the abolitionist cause that condemned the Constitution as a “blood-soaked covenant” unworthy of support. Later, as he studied the Founding period and the idea of equality that is at the heart of the Declaration, he reversed his position and came to see the Constitution as a “glorious liberty document.”
Even as Douglass extolled the political liberty that came from 1776, he didn’t let his fellow Americans forget the lash. He knew its effects firsthand and lamented the failure of the nation to live up to the principles of the Declaration. Yet he also sought unity around those ideals.
That project — the American project — is the reason that life-changing history and civics teachers do what they do. Done well, there is no more important job in America.
Instead of erasing the promise of the Declaration of Independence, we should welcome every young person to help realize it.
David J. Bobb is president of the Bill of Rights Institute and author of “Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue.”
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