What History Professors Really Think About ‘The 1619 Project’
by Marybeth Gasman, Forbes Magazine Contributor / Jun 3, 2021
Professor Christopher Span was interviewed about his approach to using journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones' historical piece "The 1619 Project" to teach students in his undergraduate and graduate courses.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has been in the news lately because the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill offered her a professorship, but refused to give her tenure along with it, even though the faculty review committee recommended tenure. At the center of the debate is “The 1619 Project” a historical endeavor developed by Hannah-Jones and published by The New York Times Magazine. The project sought to reframe the nation’s history by placing Black people, and the institution of slavery as well as its impact, at the center of the U.S. historical narrative. “The 1619 Project” was first published in August of 2019 in commemoration of the 400-year anniversary of enslaved Africans landing on the shores of the U.S. in Virginia.
Although lauded by many and awarded the Pulitzer for Hannah-Jones, the project immediately drew criticism from scholars and politicians. However, the greatest objections emerged when “The 1619 Project” began to be taught in grade school and college history courses with some state government’s threatening to revoke funding from schools using it in their classrooms.
A few well-known historians have been critical of “The 1619 Project,” but not because it centers slavery in U.S. history. In a letter to The New York Times they wrote: “None of us have any disagreement with the need for Americans, as they consider their history, to understand that the past is populated by sinners as well as saints, by horrors as well as honors, and that is particularly true of the scarred legacy of slavery.” They are critical because they feel “The 1619 Project” “offers a historically-limited view of slavery” and “asserts that every aspect of American life has only one lens for viewing, that of slavery, and its fall-out.”
At the same time, many history professors are using “The 1619 Project” in their classrooms and feel strongly about the importance of its use. Christopher Span, a History of Education professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign thinks that “’The 1619 Project’ should be added to every undergraduate course surveying American history.” He sees it as essential and notes that “it centralizes the longstanding role race, racism, and slavery played in the making of this nation and illustrates how their tenets predate those of freedom and democracy by at least one year.” Span teaches “The 1619 Project” in both his undergraduate and graduate courses. For Span, “the history of African Americans is the history of America” and educating Americans to appreciate and understand this history “affords opportunities for healing and reconciliation.”
Jonathan Zimmerman, an educational historian at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that teaching “The 1619 Project” alongside other interpretations of history “represents a huge opportunity to teach students what history actually *is*: an act of interpretation.” He also plans on teaching “The 1619 Project” in his courses. History changes over time as historians uncover and analyze new data. Penn State University history professor Crystal Sanders believes it is essential to include Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project” in history courses. In her words, “I think it is important for students to see that our understanding of the past is not frozen in time.”
Politicians criticizing “The 1619 Project” believe that the work is dangerous to the nation, and that it misrepresents U.S. history. They argue that it denies the principles that the nation is built upon and is racially divisive. Politicians have introduced bills banning the teaching of the project in public institutions in Arkansas, Iowa, South Dakota, Mississippi, Texas, and Missouri. And, most recently, in late April 2021, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona urging him to refrain from advocating for the use of “The 1619 Project” in curricula. McConnell wrote: “Our nation's youth do not need activist indoctrination that fixates solely on past flaws and splits our nation into divided camps. Taxpayer-supported programs should emphasize the shared civic virtues that bring us together, not push radical agendas that tear us apart.”
According to Zimmerman, not teaching about “The 1619 Project” and the debates that historians have with it is a “gigantic lost opportunity.” More importantly, he explains that history courses – in schools and in college classrooms – are intended to teach students how to think and question, not what to think.