I had the pleasure of studying with Professor Woody Holton as a graduate student at the University of Richmond. His seminar on the American Revolution was filled with discussion and healthy debate around a wide range of readings. He is a model history teacher.
This piece by Holton on the controversy surrounding the 1619 Project beautifully encapsulates why it needs to be taught. I actually used it with an advance placement U.S. History course just weeks after it was published in 2019 and for some of the same reasons Holton references:
Another reason I chose The 1619 Project is that students always grow intellectually when they debate questions that begin with the word “Why.” We are less than a month into the new semester, but my class has already had several lively discussions about why politicians here in South Carolina and in several other states hate The 1619 Project so much that they want to violate students’ and teachers’ free speech rights by censoring it.
I also belong to a growing cohort of historians who contend that while history is all about the dates, as traditionalists believe, it is also about the debates. In history as in politics, the deeper you and I look into the same topic, the more we end up disagreeing. And that is not a bad thing. Like many young people, I found history boring – just lists of people and events to memorize – until in high school I finally took a class that got us debating big questions like why the American Revolution and Civil War broke out….
The 1619 Project also helps instructors like me achieve another crucial goal. I don’t want students to just spit back the facts and theories I serve up to them. It is not even enough that they write argumentative essays, as important as those are. They need to learn how to come up with their own original takes on things. One route to originality is to compare two essays written by the same historian at different times, and The 1619 Project is perfect for those comparisons.
We read sections of the publication alongside other sources, including criticisms of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s opening essay on the Revolution and democracy. The 1619 Project was more than a collection of essays, poems, etc. It was an event. I can’t think of another public history endeavor that has excited people more about how history is written and why it matters so much to how we think about ourselves as Americans.
I want my students not just to be exposed to the content of the 1619 Project, but to work on developing their own ideas and conclusions.
Unfortunately, I believe that the vast majority of people who claim to have an opinion about the 1619 Project, including the legislators who are working to have it banned from classrooms, have never bothered to read it. I look forward to using it again with my students if I am fortunate enough to return to the classroom this coming Fall.