Monday, July 5, 2021

“A True Civic Education”: 1619, 1776, and the Practice of Freedom

          Growing up in the 1980s, July 4th was the All-American holiday and family affair. We had a barbeque, drank strawberry soda (because it is red!), played baseball at the schoolyard, cranked out homemade ice cream, danced in the water sprinkler, took turns standing (sometimes with shoving) in front of the box fan to cool off, and shot off fireworks as the long daylight finally faded into darkness. There were some vague ideas about history, but July 4th was never really about history. It was more of a feeling, and more than the feeling of eating too many hot dogs and potato chips. We were meant to feel proud about our nation, which popular belief assured us was the best nation on the planet, without ever providing any actual reasoning for the conclusion. Why were we the best? Because we just were. We had the best military, the best democracy, the best food, the best athletes, the best entertainers, the best everything. And if someone didn’t believe it was true, then they didn’t deserve to be here. Because the USA was for the best people in the world, and loving the USA uncritically proved you were worthy – you were part of the elite and wonderful nation of being the best and shared in its best-ness.  

“Even If It’s Painful”

          This kind of upbringing felt ubiquitous here in the Ozarks, and I suspect it is one of the most important reasons for why there is such outrage over the 1619 Project. 1619 was the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to the Virginia colony, and the Project makes the point of reframing US history from a perspective that does not ignore the role and reality of slavery, or the impacts and contributions of Black Americans. 

It is meant as a corrective to our (White) civic myth that nothing bad has ever happened in our national history, or, if it has, it has been entirely dealt with in a satisfying and happy way. It refuses to allow us to separate 1776 from the messy reality of history. So, while there is plenty of room for serious conversation among historians about both the framing and content of the 1619 Project, the current controversy is not about the history, sociology, critical social theory, and the like. It is about American (White) denial, our (mainly White-centered) discomfort with history, and our discomfort with how that history is still alive in the present day. As the 1619 Project’s lead reporter, Nikole Hannah-Jones (whom we can congratulate for receiving tenure at UNC this week, in the face of opposition: )*, expressed it:

“if we truly understand that black people are fully American and so the struggle of black people to make our union actually reflect its values is not a negative thing against the country, because we are citizens who are working to make this country better for all Americans. That is something that white Americans, if they really believe as they say that race doesn't matter, we're all Americans, should also be proud of and embrace that story. We cannot deny our past. And if you believe that 1776 matters, if you believe that our Constitution still matters, then you also have to understand that the legacy of slavery still matters and you can't pick and choose what parts of history we think are important and which ones aren't. They all are important. And that narrative that is inclusive and honest even if it's painful is the only way that we can understand our times now and the only way we can move forward.” ( )


          I can’t remember a time when some variation of this point didn’t seem obvious to me, and I owe a lot of that to the good fortune of growing up in a family that loved books. Both my parents read to us, and my mother took us to the library every week. My father’s time was more limited, working second shift, but he passed on to me a love for history. Our house had lots of books and reading rivaled baseball and gardening as family pastimes – which is saying something for a family that had highlights of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 1967 postseason on vinyl so we could listen to baseball in the offseason at my grandmother’s house. With so much opportunity and encouragement to read, I eventually found the writings that helped me navigate my way through and out of the tangle of absurdities that were taught as inevitable and unassailable truths in the wider culture around me.

          Religion was a big part of that, to be sure, and I spoke last month about the harm that is so quickly and easily done in religious contexts. But the religious lies were ultimately easier to leave behind. Although the road was a long one, it was surprisingly simple to pack up boxes of books to donate to churches and libraries, and then say goodbye. But the world outside of conservative church life is still dominated by coercion and built on its own set of lies and absurdities. We must still live and work in a socio-economic world that shares many of the same features: brutally exploitative, racist, sexist, ableist, classist, and otherwise cruel. And it has its own set of civic myths, one-sided sacred stories of how our nation came into existence and how we US citizens have inherited a solemn responsibility to share democracy with the world. This is meant to make us feel proud while shielding us from the reality of history, the insights of the social sciences, and the ongoing injustices we are complicit in carrying out across the globe.

          Today’s hallowed civic holiday is an opportunity, then, to reflect. An honest reckoning with history does not threaten our national well-being; it threatens the oppressive systems that have leveraged the lies to accumulate power and wealth. When people go out of their way to hide the facts, it indicates that knowing that history could disrupt the way things are. When history is experienced as a threat, it is often because a brittle, oppressive system is still being protected by lies. In my experience, people with relative privilege and power may become afraid that their own legitimacy will be called into question. There may be anxiety of losing reputation, power, or wealth. Most commonly, we are unprepared to deal with the reality of their own complicity. We like to think of ourselves as good people, descended from good people, and history forces upon us uncomfortable and more complicated facts. How do we relate with history beyond easy dichotomies of good guy versus bad guy? How can we learn to hold the lofty aspirations and sometimes incredible acts of courageous compassion in one hand, with the horrifying greed and cruelty that has too often driven history in the other? 

The Point of History Class

          So, although the outrage over 1619 or Critical Race Theory feels new, it’s important for us to remember that there is nothing new about these kinds of controversies. It is also important to note that the United States is not exceptional in dealing with these issues. People in Turkey and India have been debating their own national origins, while Vladimir Putin famously promoted Stalin as a strong leader who fended off fascism. Back in 2017, ultranationalists in Germany made the news when they “bemoaned how the country’s focus on atoning for the horrors of the Holocaust rendered Germans ‘a totally defeated people.’” Simultaneously, Marine Le Pen pushed back against teaching French children about their nation’s complicity in deporting French Jews, who were sent to concentration camps, saying: “France has been abused in the minds of people for years. We taught our children that they had every reason to criticize, to see only the darkest historic aspects. I want them to be proud of being French again.” ( )

Further, if you study the timeline, you can see patterns in educational controversies. Adam Laats pointed out in his 2015 book, The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education ( ), that in contrast to the oft assumed idea that the US education system has been solely shaped by progressive ideals and values, conservative activists have powerfully influenced the US educational landscape. If you want the details of each of these controversies, please follow the links to Laats’ book and supplementary articles. For our purpose here, please don’t focus as much on the details as on the patterns. Notice how a controversy emerges in each generation and relies on similar accusations and arguments:

In each of these examples, Laats points out that anti-progressive activists “were fiercely committed to a view of the curriculum that inculcated love of country, reinforced traditional gender roles and family structures, allowed no alternatives to capitalism, and granted religion a central role in civic life.” ( ) These activists offered a different vision “about what history class is supposed to be for.” And the tension between these different visions of civic education keeps controversies repeating on a loop, using eerily similar language to attack educators, historians, social scientists, activists, and others advocating for just, equitable, and compassionate communities. For example, the conservative school board member who led the charge in the Kanawha County attack eventually proposed guidelines for textbook selection that included: "Textbooks for use in the classrooms of Kanawha County shall recognize the sanctity of the home”; "Textbooks must encourage loyalty to the United States"; and "Textbooks must not defame our nation's founders or misrepresent the ideals and causes for which they struggled and sacrificed." ( )

          Similarly, Harold Rugg’s emphasis on critical thinking and social justice in the first half of the twentieth century led to accusations that his widely used and praised textbooks would, in the words of one accuser, cause students to doubt “the ‘patriotism’ of the founding fathers and the constitution and ‘to condemn the American system’ of private enterprise” and promote collectivism. Other critics accused the textbooks of “picturing the U.S. as a land of unequal opportunity, and giving a class conscious account of the framing of the U.S. Constitution.” ( ) One critic, Col. Augustin C. Rudd, said that Harold Rugg used “gentle language and a pedagogic smile” to lead children “through the successive stages of indoctrination.” To prove his point, Rudd pointed to a lesson when students were invited to reflect: “Is the United States a land of opportunity for all our people? Why?” The teacher’s guide encouraged an actual conversation based on the realities of life in the USA:

“The United States is not a land of opportunity for all our people; for one-fifth of the people do not earn any money at all. There are great differences in the standards of living of the different classes of people. The majority does not have any real security.” ( )

          This is good pedagogy, encouraging and teaching critical thinking skills (which is pretty close to the opposite of indoctrination). But Rugg’s reward was to be labeled as subversive and anti-American. Sadly, I can’t find any evidence that any of the conservative critics ever suggested that the answer to these social disparities was to change society to match their ideals. Instead, insults were dressed up as arguments that relied largely on emotive appeal, mixing their calls for patriotism with appeals to fear. To ask and answer questions honestly was unpatriotic, dangerous, and had to be resisted at all costs. So we inherit the same questions: what is the point of history? Is it to prop up the present order of things, or can it help provide insight into how we can learn to be better, preserving what is good and leaving aside what is unjust, unkind, and unwise? Or, in Laats’ words:

“Is the point of history class to introduce young Americans to their heritage of heroes, the glories of American history? Or is history class supposed to make young people into critical examiners of their society, a true civic education that teaches American young people to question every bit of received wisdom and be ready to change what needs changing?” ( )

“Our Tolerance for Complexity”

          Remember Laats’ point that anti-progressive activists “were fiercely committed to a view of the curriculum that inculcated love of country, reinforced traditional gender roles and family structures, allowed no alternatives to capitalism, and granted religion a central role in civic life.” In each of these examples, the received wisdom was that the status quo was equitable and just, and that change would be a corruption and a step backwards. In my experience, this allows conservative activists to think of themselves as victims, even martyrs, resisting an attack on their national identity. In resisting change, they can fulfill the role of the patriotic underdog, and true patriots would recognize them and cheer them on. But these examples of conservative activism erase history and hard work that we could actually be proud about. Recall the words of Nikole Hannah-Jones:

“if we truly understand that black people are fully American and so the struggle of black people to make our union actually reflect its values is not a negative thing against the country, because we are citizens who are working to make this country better for all Americans.” ( )

          We could repeat this for other marginalized and oppressed groups, whose histories we should treasure and teach, rather than ignore and suppress. These are stories that point a pathway toward the actual ideals that the people of the United States say we value: honoring and celebrating the real practice of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If the true meaning of July 4th is, as I’ve been told, a celebration of obtaining freedom in the face of oppression, then what better starting point is there than 1619, or 1492?

          To be clear, I am not advocating here for history classes to become a mirror image of the right that simply leans left. Even my heroes remain flawed human beings, and studying history helps me remember and understand that we are constantly making decisions based on limited information. The human experience comes with so many variables and surprises, and history reminds me to proceed with patience and humility. As Stanford School of Education Professor Sam Wineburg has pointed out,

"History as truth, issued from the left or the right, abhors shades of gray … . Such a history atrophies our tolerance for complexity. It makes us allergic to exceptions to the rule. Worst of all it depletes the moral courage we need to revise our beliefs in the face of new evidence. It insures ultimately that tomorrow we will think exactly as we thought yesterday – and the day before and the day before that." ( )

          The social sciences offer tools to help us avoid this kind of trap, encouraging us to think and live reflectively. We want to learn, change, and grow. And this means we should expect these controversies to keep coming, generation after generation, until there is a shift in our national educational culture. As part of this process, we can create more opportunities and support for teachers and administrators from marginalized communities, who have often been most responsible for keeping true civic education alive. For example, Jarvis R. Givens, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, ( ), recently reflected on the impact and importance of attending schools with Black teachers and administrators, and the shock and loss for students he met at university who had never had that opportunity. In this context, the whole debate about racism and education, such as the current controversies over the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory, miss the point. He wrote,

“Lost in the discourse on both sides, however, is the acknowledgment that Black teachers, as early as the 19th century, have been deeply engaged in the work of challenging racial domination in American schools. The traditions of African American teachers provide the country with a model, a vital intellectual resource for more nuanced conversations about the place and possibility of anti-racism in the classroom.” ( )

          Givens’ also reflected on his research on “the subversive teaching practices of African Americans during slavery through Jim Crow” and how it connected with the traditions of Black education:

“Black educators have always known that their students are living in an anti-Black world and, therefore, decided that their teaching must be set against the very order of that world. Their political clarity manifested in lessons that were explicitly about race, history, and Black culture; but their views also shaped the social systems of classrooms, even at times when tenets of anti-racism were not explicitly named. They took a holistic approach to teaching—honoring Black life, with all its beauty and contradictions, and nurturing the ambition of their students, even when the lesson had nothing to do with responding to whiteness or anti-Black violence. In my classrooms growing up, we had to study and enact anti-racism, certainly. But we also had to know that our worth and our offering to the world, and to ourselves, was much more than that.”

          A local demonstration of this can be found in the annual Black History Summer Academy held each summer in Springfield, with words from Christine Peoples that reflect this holistic approach:

"Without our history, we can't know our future … . All of the things that were taught at this table, … that sustained people for their future. The students learned that it was time to pass the torch. They realized that someone really does care about their hopes and their dreams, and they're loved. They can make a difference, and unity is possible." ( )

This has more to do with honoring and celebrating freedom than fireworks and strawberry soda. There is no reason to be threatened with history if you are willing to learn from it. At its best, history is the study of the human experience, giving us humility in the face of our mistakes (from the most laughable to the most cruel) and hope in the face of our greatest challenges. It is an opportunity to remember that we are making history right now, and we can make a better future not only possible, but something real.


* Nikole Hannah-Jones turned down UNC and chose to join Howard University. I encourage you to read her full statement, including her words that: 

"“I will be taking a position as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at Howard University, founded in 1867 to serve the formerly enslaved and their descendants. There, I will be creating a new initiative aimed at training aspiring journalists to cover the crisis of our democracy and bolstering journalism programs at historically Black colleges and universities across the country." 

"For too long, powerful people have expected the people they have mistreated and marginalized to sacrifice themselves to make things whole. The burden of working for racial justice is laid on the very people bearing the brunt of the injustice, and not the powerful people who maintain it. I say to you: I refuse." ( )