I highly recommend James Oakes’ column in Catalyst, “What The 1619 Project Got Wrong”. Oakes makes and substantiates the obvious claim that the contributors to that project “erase the history of antislavery and distort the history of slavery”. Taking the column back to front, Oakes’ own conclusion is that American slavery – and antislavery – cannot be understood without going further back and examining the rise of “capitalism”. However, the largest part of his piece is dedicated to reviewing the available facts which the Project‘s authors ignored or minimized, particularly with regard to the Southern slave economy and its relationship to the North and to Europe; American abolitionism; and the history of teaching American history.
It is the last – or rather, in Oakes’ essay, the first – of these subjects that I want to comment on briefly, as teaching is the one subject treated which I actually know a fair bit about. Oakes’ review of changes in American textbooks is useful in understanding some of the divisions visible in American education today. However, I think he does not quite account for the realities of schooling, and ends up pushing his case a little further than the evidence actually allows.
In looking at history textbooks, Oakes reviews – and emphasizes that he is summarizing what is widely known – treatment of slavery from the late 19th century on. Textbooks after the Civil War naturally understood slavery to have been an issue of great importance. The early progressives – Oakes cites an 1896 book, then on through the first half of the 20th century – are the ones to whom we owe efforts to downplay both the severity of American slavery and its importance as a point of political and social debate. But the tide was already turning back toward honesty by the 1940s – at the latest – and from at least the 1970s on we have been “systematically introduced to marginalized groups – black people, women, immigrants, workers”.
Let me make my criticism first. Oakes does not really account for the role of teachers in teaching. I teach math, and hardly use my textbooks as more than a source for exercises. And this is so, even though the facts of mathematics are not seriously disputed, nor is there much call to “interpret” them. The study of history asks us to both examine our “facts” carefully and ask how we are to understand their connection and significance. Students learn interpretation from their teachers and the work teachers assign, and the simple fact is that I, with relatively little preparation and despite having my degree in mathematics, could teach “Manifest Destiny” nationalism to a history class out of today’s most misleadingly “inclusive” textbook, or “Critical Race Theory” using Beard’s textbooks that Oakes castigates.
All either of these reversals would require is a careful selection of original sources to present to students in contrast to the “oversimplified” narrative of the textbook. I would barely even have to imply the textbook’s author might have had an agenda – and this is assuming students actually read the textbook. Oakes might be surprised how many students simply don’t. So this is one weakness in his argument: whatever may be published is not necessarily the same as what is being taught.
Additionally, textbooks are hardly replaced promptly in most schools. The expense of textbooks is enormous today, but even a hundred years ago the outlay would still have been significant – and of course, the poorer the school, the more relatively off-putting the total. Judging by my experience, a book published in 1949 might not really have become a “standard” textbook until, say, 1960.
Now, if we return to the larger context, we can also see the basis of reactionism. The early progressives intentionally downplayed slavery. The later 20th century historians corrected this. So far, we have a picture of reform. But, as Oakes documents, even other academics found some of these new books “surprisingly dark” – focused on “conflict and violence, oppression and resistance” and – crucially – without a suggestion of progress. Oakes notes in passing conservative complaints about “multiculturalists”, citing Limbaugh and Krauthammer, and invoking Reagan – but only as evidence that, as far as the historical consensus was concerned, the progressive white-washing had failed. He might have considered these complaints in more detail, if only for the odd transition of progressive to conservative, though ideological history is admittedly tangential to his article.
It seems most likely that Reagan – and, if I’m right about the delay in purchase of new textbooks, Limbaugh and Krauthammer – would have gone to school with that early progressive version of things in their textbooks. And that’s an important question for conservative teachers to consider – especially as in virtually all cases the early 20th century progressives are considered largely responsible, in their disdain for written law, for many of the problems we see today. What dishonesties have been accidentally – or possibly intentionally – carried over into efforts to rebuild good schools?
But Oakes does not fully understand the motivations of the conservative push-back. I assume Oakes himself would hardly identify as a conservative, but he makes an appeal that virtually every conservative teacher would agree with verbatim: “Those of us who see in American history profound divisions over democracy, equality, racism, and slavery are not plumping for a myth.” But you can’t maintain stability on the basis of division. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” As Neil Postman notes in his 1996 book The End of Education, an education – especially a public education – that does not provide sources of unity does not, in the end, contribute to the community. We can accept a history of division, if we maintain a unity of vision. Conservative schooling believes itself based on maintaining that vision – if admittedly not always well-defined.
In contrast, the import of The 1619 Project and similar scholarship – even if Hannah-Jones maintains it is an argument merely for “reparations” – is essentially revolutionary. It attempts to demonstrate – often assumes – that the American vision is primarily “racist” – that is, prejudiced; that is, wicked. If the facts really bore that out, it would be, at a minimum – which some have in fact called for – reason for a new constitution. Only, the charge is not – as Oakes and others have demonstrated – actually much rooted in the facts. And there is no new vision. Even the critics demand – in theory – greater democratization – a greater establishment of self-governing liberty. Which is, evidently, the ideal claimed by America. And where American corruption has curtailed the American dream, the current Constitution does in fact allow for its own amendment.
What I am increasingly afraid of – what I learned was a basic assumption among conservatives as I grew up, and what I see equally widespread among progressives today – is a fundamental disbelief in the powers and legitimacy of the institutions and officers of our nominally self-governing republic. A situation where every corrupt power “we” have is tightly embraced lest it fall into “their” hands, and where every popular movement for reform is distrusted as a “front” for some powerful interest – unless it’s a reform “we” are in favor of, in which case the campaign as well as the reform is supposed to be flawless.
The Constitution could probably use some changes: but that can hardly happen without open discussion. What we need to remind ourselves most urgently is that we have sources of unity – that we in fact hold certain truths to be self-evident; that we are committed to government by the people; that we, in fact, have a dream.