The 1619 Project is not losing its status as a favored punching bag of Republicans—in fact, the campaign against it has entered a new, dangerous stage. Efforts by Donald Trump and Sen. Tom Cotton to ban the collection commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in what later became the United States were symbolic, because the federal government does not set curriculum.
The 1619 Project seeks to fully write Black people into the center of U.S. history—where they have been all along, even if the written histories have often excluded or marginalized them. State legislators in Arkansas, Iowa, and Mississippi want to keep pushing Black people to the edges of the teaching of history, and they want to write that into law. That’s not symbolic, because state legislatures can set curriculum.
The proposed legislation would reduce school district budgets if they teach the 1619 Project curriculum created by the Pulitzer Center alongside The New York Times’ release of the essay series. Literally the people involved in this legislation are so threatened by information that would provide a different perspective on U.S. history that they are trying to pass laws to make sure students don’t hear it.
In part, educators say, this stems from a misunderstanding of what teaching history entails, at least in the hands of a good teacher with the leeway to offer multiple angles and sources.
“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,” Stefanie Wager, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, told EdWeek. “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.”
Similarly, Olivia Lewis, president of the Arkansas Council for the Social Studies, wrote in a letter to her state legislature, “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.”
That’s obviously no more welcome to the legislators promoting these bills than is centering Black people in U.S. history.
What’s particularly shameful is that two of the people who introduced the legislation in their states are actually former educators. Arkansas state Rep. Mark Lowery, who introduced the bill in his state, has worked as a college instructor—including as a debate coach! One would hope that college debate coaches would understand that multiple sources of information are a good thing, not a threat, but apparently not in this case. Mississippi state Sen. Angela Burks Hill is also a former educator, though since her experience includes working as a science teacher at a Baptist school … well. Debate and multiple perspectives probably weren’t as much of a thing.
The anti-1619 Project bills themselves could be used to advance social studies education, though, one education historian said. “Show the 1619 Project to the kids, and then the bills ... that are attempting to restrict it or gut it,” the University of Pennsylvania’s Jonathan Zimmerman suggested.