Why We Need To Teach the 1619 Project

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.

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12 comments… add one
  • Matt McKeon Jan 25, 2022 @ 15:40

    I got the Project for Christmas, and I’m reading it now.

  • Msb Jan 25, 2022 @ 0:22

    “ why politicians … in several … states hate The 1619 Project so much that they want to violate students’ and teachers’ free speech rights by censoring it”
    That would be an excellent discussion to have.

  • Josh Jan 24, 2022 @ 17:48

    “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”

    I don’t think most high schoolers are equipped – in either intelligence or knowledge – to have a meaningful debate on these subjects.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 24, 2022 @ 17:55

      You obviously haven’t spent much time with high school students.

      • Suzanne Crockett Jan 25, 2022 @ 3:26

        Or eighth graders.

      • Josh Jan 28, 2022 @ 13:52

        I went to a public high school in the latter half of the 1990s (supposedly one of the higher ranked school districts in the state), followed by two years of community college immediately. The experience left me with a very negative opinion about the mental capabilities of the average teenager and nothing in the ensuing two decades has given me the slightest reason to reconsider.

        In a Gifted/Honors/AP/IB history class? Maybe. In any lower level, or in a 101/102 level college course? Forget it.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 28, 2022 @ 13:56

          I am sorry to hear that. I’ve had a very different experience working with teenagers over the past 25 years. For whatever it’s worth, I barely graduated from high school and had very little interest in history.

          • Josh Jan 28, 2022 @ 18:57

            Fair enough. That’s why you’re a school teacher and I am not. Although I will point out that the two main schools you list in your About section are private institutions, not public schools. Your students should be above average, otherwise their parents are wasting a lot of money.

            • Kevin Levin Jan 29, 2022 @ 2:28

              The only difference between private and public school students is that their parents have more money. Over the past few years I have visited numerous public school classrooms over Zoom and have found the students to be intelligent and engaged–much more so than when I was their age.

    • Msb Jan 25, 2022 @ 0:25

      Then it’s time they acquired such skills. (The teens in my family had them.) If they’re old enough to wear CBF-themed prom dresses, they’re old enough to figure out and explain why that is a good or bad idea.

  • David Green Jan 24, 2022 @ 13:48

    I agree with you that the 1619 Project should be addressed and used as a teaching resource in the classroom! Thank you for your positive take on the Project. I have read and listened to many of the historian critics of the 1619 Project and I understand their concern with the essays, podcast, and books. I do have questions about some of the analysis and conjectures made in various components of the whole Project. But, those concerns do not detract from the overall purpose of the Project and I find it disheartening that historians who would agree with that purpose would be bickering with Hannah-Jones

    If we teach our students HOW to be historians they will correct the historical mistakes that appear in the material. The secret is to get them to ask WHY and guide them to learn HOW and then things will work out. Don’t let the censors stop us from doing what is right.

    This is a nice posting!

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