New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones is in the news after trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reportedly made her an offer to teach there without tenure.
The most consequential recent story about Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project she has championed—and for which she won a Pulitzer Prize—may be not the one in North Carolina, though. Instead, it may be the one that has been unfolding at the federal Department of Education. The department’s “Proposed Priorities: American History and Civics Education” attracted 33,967 comments in the month after they were posted.
The regulation lays out selection criteria for applying for federal grants to improve history and civics instruction. The federal government spends about $2 million a year on this, typically on between one and three projects that run for three to five years. Senator Lamar Alexander led the bipartisan effort to create the grant program. The first of the proposed priorities is “Projects That Incorporate Racially, Ethnically, Culturally, and Linguistically Diverse Perspectives into Teaching and Learning.” According to the proposed regulation, “there is growing acknowledgement of the importance of including, in the teaching and learning of our country’s history, both the consequences of slavery, and the significant contributions of Black Americans to our society. This acknowledgement is reflected, for example, in the New York Times’ landmark ‘1619 Project.’” The priority goes on to encourage “teaching and learning practices that…take into account systemic marginalization, biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history.”
The Senate Republican Leader, Mitch McConnell, and 38 other Republican senators sent Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona a letter expressing “grave concern” with what they called the department’s “effort to reorient the bipartisan American History and Civics Education programs…toward a politicized and divisive agenda.”
The senators said that “as powerful institutions increasingly subject Americans to a drumbeat of revisionism and negativity about our nation’s history and identity, American pride has plummeted to its lowest level in 20 years.”
The senatorial letter went on to fault the 1619 Project, saying it “has become infamous for putting ill-informed advocacy ahead of historical accuracy,” and that “Actual, trained, credentialed historians with diverse political views have debunked the project’s many factual and historical errors, such as the bizarre and inaccurate notion that preserving slavery was a primary driver of the American revolution.” The senators wrote that “citing this debunked advocacy confirms that your Proposed Priorities would not focus on critical thinking of accurate history, but on spoon-feeding students a slanted story.”
Republicans attempting to depict the Biden administration as “radical” might be dismissed as predictable. Less expected is another comment on the proposed rule. This comment was submitted by the Educating for American Democracy Initiative Executive Committee—a group that includes, among others, Danielle Allen, a Harvard professor who is exploring a run as a Democrat for governor of Massachusetts. Their comment also recommends changes, saying the emphasis in the proposed rule “is an incomplete foundation for civic learning.”
The comment goes on, with wisdom: “We can deliver full and accurate histories that can empower all learners as civic agents standing on an equal footing with one another. This requires, however, not only bringing the wrongs to the surface but also bringing forward the positive visions of democratic possibility and constitutional self-government that all the peoples of this country have developed over time. The story of the innovations to overcome problems of racial injustice and other forms of domination…should be as central to this priority as the excavation of the failings of our constitutional democracy.”
The federal rule and the public comments will eventually filter into what tens of millions of American schoolchildren experience in classrooms, but the method by which that will happen is indirect. The federal government does fund workshops for teachers and summer academies for high school students. Beyond those, though, the federal government can set a tone or rhetorical priorities, but it has no way to force local schools or teachers to comply. The public comments are a sign that any attempt to skew the curriculum to emphasize America’s faults in a one-sidedly negative way will meet widespread and bipartisan resistance.
One way that America defuses such controversies is with local or even individual autonomy—having parents or local school boards decide what their students learn. Decentralization prevents heavy-handed Washington bureaucrats from prescribing a national history or civics or even sex-education curriculum that might oscillate wildly every four or eight years depending on whether Republicans or Democrats control the White House. But in the absence of a national bipartisan consensus on some of these issues (see Frederick Hess and Matthew Rice, “Where Right and Left Agree on Civics Education, and Where They Don’t”), leaving such decisions about teaching U.S. history up to state and local policymakers or individual teachers and parents carries its own risks. The teaching may be so different in different places that it could in its own way fail to teach what the Republicans called “the shared civic virtues that bring us together” and instead end up leading down the road of what the Republicans called a “divisive agenda.”
A divisive agenda that arises organically from grassroots local and parental choices may have some advantages over a divisive agenda imposed by Washington’s top-down regulatory fiat. No matter who is calling the shots, though, one good test of any civics teaching is whether a student comes away understanding the Constitutional concepts—limited and enumerated powers, federalism—that make it so hard to impose a national history or civics curriculum. Another test might be whether a student can talk with others about what’s lamentably “divisive” and what’s admirably “diverse.”
Come to think of it, if the Biden administration is on the hunt for “priorities” for American history and civics education, the Constitution is a topic worth consideration. Interpretations may be contested, but at least the document itself is something that Americans have in common. And like America itself, it has, on a net basis, gotten more perfect over time.
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.