Should American K-12 Schools Teach The 1619 Project?

by | Sep 13, 2020 | Education

The 1619 Project is still ill-suited for K-12 education. That is a judgement we may make on its scholarly shortcomings alone.

The New York Times’s 1619 Project is coming under renewed scrutiny as the latest flashpoint in the heated cultural battles over education policy. For the past year the Times, through a partnership with the Pulitzer Center, has aggressively pushed state and local school boards to adopt its controversial readings about slavery and American history as part of their K-12 school curricula. All the while, the “newspaper of record” has adamantly refused to address the factual errors that plague several of the 1619 Project’s feature essays, and render it unsuitable for classroom instruction. In a blusterous string of tweets, President Trump recently answered the newspaper’s campaign by threatening to suspend federal funding for public schools that adopt the curriculum.

Although the bickering between the Times and Trump has more to do with political posturing than substantive policy outcomes, it nonetheless raises an important question about the newspaper’s aims with its classroom adoption campaign. Is the 1619 Project a substantive re-envisioning of American history, built upon rigorous scholarly analysis of the past? Or is it simply editorial journalism, intended to advance the Times’s political positions in the present day?

Unfortunately, 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones has cluttered the discussion by purposefully invoking both claims as a matter of convenience. She originally marketed the product as “a history that you can easily use to discuss with your children” and a re-envisioning of educational content around slavery to ensure “we do not have to reteach this history in the future because we have taught it to our children right in the first place.” When facing scrutiny over specific deficiencies in its historical claims however, Hannah-Jones makes a hasty retreat for the cover provided by its journalism origins.

The product is something of a Schroedinger’s 1619 Project: it’s simultaneously a contribution to historical scholarship when academic branding helps to lend credibility to its classroom adoption, and yet also just opinion journalism when its historical claims are subjected to scrutiny and found wanting.

The distinction matters greatly, as advocacy journalism is held to much lower standards of accuracy than scholarship, and intentionally blends factual content with normative propositions aimed at espousing a favored political stance. To use an analogy, it’s the difference between teaching an introductory economics class from Paul Krugman’s bestselling undergraduate textbook, Economics, and teaching the same class by assigning a selectively curated list of Krugman’s weekly political columns for the New York Times.

At this point it is probably safe to conclude that the 1619 Project fits squarely in the realm of advocacy journalism. Hannah-Jones has been candid about this aim when it suits her, including a recent admission that the project seeks to build support for the enactment of a slavery reparations program in the present day. Although some of the 1619 Project’s less-controversial essays reflect popular distillations of their authors’ academic work, these shorter vignettes have not attracted the level of criticism surrounding the project’s feature essays over their explicitly political messages. Indeed, the overwhelming focus of critical scrutiny centers upon just two contributions to the 1619 Project: the lead essay by Hannah-Jones herself, particularly concerning its problematic claims about the American Revolution, and an error-riddled, retraction-worthy essay by sociologist Matthew Desmond on the economics of slavery.

As scrutiny mounted over the contributions of Hannah-Jones and Desmond, ultimately rendering several of their claims untenable, the Times itself doubled down into a position of outright incorrigibility. After 6 months of intense criticism and a surprise revelation that the paper ignored its own fact checker, Times magazine editor Jake Silverstein published a tepid single-line backtrack of its historically unsupported characterization of slavery as a primary impetus for the American Revolution. To date, the paper has not published a single word acknowledging the many problems with Desmond’s essay, including his direct misrepresentation of recent empirical findings on the causes of the cotton economy’s growth before the Civil War.

Nonetheless, Hannah-Jones has adopted another tactic to insulate these two essays from scrutiny. When pressed on their specific shortcomings, the Times reporter now retreats to the academic resumes of a handful of its Ivy League contributors to lend the entire product scholarly legitimacy. “Had you actually read the 1619 Project, which you clearly haven’t, you’d know historians with PhDs from Princeton and Harvard wrote for the project,” she recently tweeted. It’s a claim that she’s repeated dozens of times over.

Hannah-Jones’s invoking of scholarly prestige amounts to a deeply misleading characterization of the 1619 Project’s content.

Two Ivy League historians, Harvard’s Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Princeton’s Kevin M. Kruse, did in fact write feature essays for the 1619 Project. But neither Muhammad nor Kruse’s contributions pertained to claims or the historical period at the center of the 1619 Project controversies. Muhammad and Kruse are both specialists in 20th century topics such as the Civil Rights movement and the history of race relations. Their two essays for the Times reflected this expertise, and attracted little controversy.

Yet neither Muhammad nor Kruse’s resumes are sufficient to provide cover to the 1619 Project’s contested material, including the crucial period between 1775 and 1865 where slavery was the central focus of its narrative. These bookends encompass the years between the start of the American Revolution and the end of the Civil War – arguably the most important period in American history for understanding the political development, entrenchment, and eventual destruction of the slave system.

Instead of using scholars who focus on this crucial period to inform the 1619 Project’s narrative on slavery, Hannah-Jones assigned it to either journalists such as herself and fellow New York Times writer Jamelle Bouie, or to non-specialists such as Desmond, who had no prior academic expertise on the subject of 19th century slavery let alone its complex economic dimensions.

A breakdown of the 1619 Project’s twelve main feature contributions reveals the full severity of this problem.

Title Scope Author(s) Author’s Profession
America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One Slavery in 17th-19th centuries, American Revolution Nikole Hannah-Jones Journalist – New York Times
American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation Economics of slavery in 19th century Matthew Desmond Sociologist, 20th Century Race Relations – Princeton
A New Literary Timeline of African-American History Literature Various – 16 different writers English and Poetry professors, film directors, fiction writers
How False Beliefs in Physical Racial Difference Still Live in Medicine Today History of race in medicine Linda Villarosa Journalist – Essence Magazine
What the Reactionary Politics of 2019 Owe to the Politics of Slavery Slavery in the early United States, 21st century politics Jamelle Bouie Journalist – New York Times
Why Is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music? History of music Wesley Morris Journalist – New York Times
How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam History of urban/suburban development Kevin Kruse Historian, 20th Century Race Relations – Princeton
Why Doesn’t America Have Universal Healthcare? One word: Race Health care policy Jeneen Interlandi Journalist – New York Times
Why American Prisons Owe Their Cruelty to Slavery Prison reform policy Bryan Stevenson Attorney
The Barbaric History of Sugar in America History of sugar production Khalil Gibran Muhammad Historian, 20th Century Race Relations – Harvard
How America’s Vast Racial Wealth Gap Grew: By Plunder Racial wealth gap in the US from post-Civil War to present day Trymaine Lee Journalist – MSNBC
Their Ancestors Were Enslaved by Law. Now They’re Lawyers Photo essay Djeneba Aduayom Photographer (with text and layout provided by New York Times staff)

Of the twelve main features, six were written by journalists including four in-house writers from the Times. One is a photographic essay, another is an assortment of literary contributions written by English and Poetry professors, and a third is a legal analysis of prison reform policy – all ostensibly worthwhile contributions, but not the subject of focus for the ensuing controversy over the 1619 Project. The two historians’ contributions, as noted, come from 20th century specialists. Indeed, the only 19th century historian the 1619 Project used, Tiya Miles, did not contribute a feature article but rather a series of short vignettes about slavery’s role in migration and agriculture. These mini-essays were noncontroversial, and did not advance Hannah-Jones’s narrative about the American Revolution or Desmond’s faulty economic claims.

To the extent that historians informed the project’s discussion of the crucial period between 1775 and 1865, the Times has remained entirely non-transparent. Hannah-Jones has declined to specify which experts she consulted for her essay, and the only public acknowledgement of any outside review to date has come from Leslie Harris, the historian the Times recruited to fact-check her arguments about slavery’s role in the American Revolution – and then promptly ignored when Harris advised against publishing the claim. Desmond’s essay sources its interpretation to seven academic historians who are quoted in the article. Yet all seven are affiliated with the “New History of Capitalism” (NHC) movement – an insular and ideological school of slavery scholars that emerged in the last decade, and that has fared poorly under scrutiny of its own arguments about slavery’s economic dimensions. Desmond’s essay is, at best, a sloppy cribbing of NHC arguments that most other economists and non-NHC historians of slavery already found wanting and rejected.

Although the project’s creator and defenders will likely continue to maintain that it is based on sound historical scholarship, this claim is at best only true for its less-controversial treatments of the 20th century and more recent topics in race relations. Insofar as the history of slavery is concerned though, the New York Times dropped the ball and delegated this content to either its own journalistic ranks or to non-specialists like Desmond. The errors of fact and interpretation that ensued were entirely avoidable, and even to this day could be corrected if the Times would make a conscientious effort to engage with and respond to criticisms.

Instead, the newspaper has opted to stick by Hannah-Jones’s political purposes at the expense of its historical accuracy – an editorial decision that unfortunately casts a shadow over the credibility of the entire project, when it might have easily been confined to only two or three of its essays.

Ironically, it is the Times itself that has given fodder to its political critics on the right. They did so through a year of dismissive derision against more responsible scrutiny from across the political spectrum, and by attempting to pass off an exercise in highly politicized editorial journalism as a substantive and classroom-ready contribution to the history and historiography of slavery – but only when it was convenient to invoke such claims. We need not indulge the bombastic posturing of Trump, or unlikely legislative efforts to strip funding from schools, to conclude that the 1619 Project is still ill-suited for K-12 education. That is a judgement we may make on its scholarly shortcomings alone.

Made available by the American Institute for Economic Research.

Phil Magness is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of numerous works on economic history, taxation, economic inequality, the history of slavery, and education policy in the United States.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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