Public Schools Are Teaching The 1619 Project in Class, Despite Concerns From Historians

"Mandating the use of The 1619 Project in K-12 curricula is at best premature until these issues are resolved."


The 1619 ProjectThe New York Times Magazine's much vaunted series of essays about the introduction of African slavery to the Americas—will now be taught in K-12 schools around the country.

School districts in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Buffalo, New York, have decided to update their history curricula to include the material, which posits that the institution of slavery was so embedded in the country's DNA that the country's true founding could be said to have occurred in 1619, rather than in 1776.

"One of the things that we are looking at in implementing The 1619 Project is to let everyone know that the issues around the legacy of enslavement that exist today, it's an American issue, it's not a Black issue," Dr. Fatima Morrell, associate superintendent for culturally and linguistically responsive initiatives for Buffalo Public Schools, told Buffalo's NPR station.

Buffalo teachers and administrators have already begun studying the 1619 material so they can implement it into their curricula. The NPR story correctly notes that the essays examine "lesser-known consequences of slavery," like "how plantation economics led to modern corporate, capitalist culture."

Many historians, though, have questioned The 1619 Project's accuracy. Five of them penned a letter to The New York Times expressing dismay "at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it." These historians said the project's contention that the American Revolution was launched "in order to ensure slavery would continue" was flat-out wrong.

Another historian, Phil Magness of the American Institute for Economic Research, has criticized Matthew Desmond's 1619 Project essay, which claimed that modern American capitalism has its roots in plantation slavery. Magness has persuasively argued that this claim lacks verification, and that Desmond relied on bad data about cotton-picking rates in the pre-Civil War south.

"Desmond's thesis relies exclusively on scholarship from a hotly contested school of thought known as the New History of Capitalism (NHC)," wrote Magness in a second article. "Although NHC scholars often present their work as cutting-edge explorations into the relationship between capitalism and slavery, they have not fared well under scrutiny from outside their own ranks."

Some conservative critics have overreached: Former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called The 1619 Project "propaganda" and suggested that the Times was trying to brainwash readers. That line of attack goes too far, but there are valid criticisms of the project's ideological slant.

Citing Magness' article, New York magazine's Jonathan Chait hailed The 1619 Project as a valuable corrective, but cautioned that it shouldn't be taught in schools a history. Magness agrees.

"Mandating the use of The 1619 Project in K-12 curricula is at best premature until these issues are resolved and the Times makes a good faith effort to answer its critics," Magness tells Reason. "While there is merit to some of the themes raised by The 1619 Project, it continues to be marred by its empirically debunked and explicitly anti-capitalist assessment of the economics of slavery."

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Times reporter who spearheaded the project, has in general taken umbrage at the idea that there's anything seriously wrong with the work. She came close to accusing The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf of racism for mildly critiquing the project. In an interview with Friedersdorf's Atlantic colleague Adam Serwer, she insisted that history was not objective.

"I think my point was that history is not objective," said Hannah-Jones. "And that people who write history are not simply objective arbiters of facts, and that white scholars are no more objective than any other scholars, and that they can object to the framing and we can object to their framing as well."

Hannah-Jones is correct that the keepers of histories have always employed spin: History is written by the victors is a great aphorism because it's true. School textbooks have often been filled with ideological nonsense—sometimes as part of a conservative or religious agenda. But that's the irony of requiring The 1619 Project in high school history courses: It is itself a form of spin, and significant aspects of it are up for debate.

"The Buffalo school district's decision also risks further politicizing the classroom with explicitly ideological content, not unlike the notorious cases we often hear about coming from the other side of the spectrum such as the Texas textbook review process, which has long been a bastion of the religious right," says Magness.