Last April, the South Carolina legislature voted to require all high school and public college students to read America’s founding documents, including the Bill of Rights. Legislation introduced a short time later makes me wonder whether the duty of reading the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment, ought to also be imposed on our state’s politicians.
The First Amendment prohibits the government from taking away our “freedom of speech.” Yet H. 4343 would prohibit K-12 teachers from having their students read a book that has been on the bestseller list ever since it was published last November. I am talking about The 1619 Project, which contends that African Americans have played a much larger role in American history than most people realize.
This semester, students in my section of The Historian’s Craft, which is required for history majors at the University of South Carolina, are reading The 1619 Project. I had several motives for assigning it. One is that as a lover of the First Amendment, I feel a duty to expose my students to books that others wish to ban.
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.
And believe me, The 1619 Project has provoked some spirited debates in my class. Alongside the book, I have assigned three well-reasoned essays criticizing it. As students engage in these debates, my job is not to favor one side or the other. Not taking a side is especially easy for me in this case, as I find great inspiration in The 1619 Project but also disagree with some of the interpretations.
Instead I work to keep the conversation civil. No problem there, at least not yet, since these are curious college students, not partisan politicians.
The other way I try to contribute to my kids’ debates is to keep them focused on evidence. So if a student repeats the common criticism that The 1619 Project is unfair to Abraham Lincoln, I challenge them to cite the exact page number where the offending phrase appears. And, of course, I impose the same high standard on students who defend the Project- for example those who say they find creator Nikole Hannah-Jones’s personal stories about her evolving attitude toward the American flag incredibly patriotic.
Students desperately need to learn more about American history. For example, few know that the Framers of our Constitution did not initially give us a Bill of Rights. But then nearly half the states refused to ratify the Constitution until the politicians promised to give them a Bill of Rights, as they finally did in 1791. But as important as facts like these are, it is even more crucial for students to learn skills. I spend an immense amount of time critiquing their writing, but the most important skill they develop in my classes - and I think in most history classes - is the art of assessing evidence, deciding for themselves, and then arguing their points persuasively, whether in prose or in person.
If H. 4343 passes, high school teachers will still be able to have students read essays criticizing The 1619 Project - just not the book they criticize. That would thoroughly impoverish their discussions - and offer further proof for the adage that we often end up wishing government had not turned either left or right but had just left us right where we were.
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.
Students can download the original version of the Project, which appeared in the New York Times Magazine on Aug. 18, 2019, for free from the Pulitzer Center website.
As a bestseller, the 2021 book version, by the same authors (plus others) is available for less than a fourth of what students pay for many of their textbooks. Among my students’ most fruitful discussions have been those in which they identify differences between the 2019 and 2021 versions of the same author’s essay. Some of the differences are obvious. The 2019 magazine version contained mistakes that the authors fixed in the 2021 book, but often a difference is so subtle that only one student discovers it.. These discoveries are just the sort of originality I want my students to achieve. At their best, they do not just consume history but also produce it.
I would like to invite any member of the legislature - including the more than 30 sponsors of H. 4343 - to visit my class and see the good work the students are doing with The 1619 Project and its critics. In fact, if they want, our visitors would be welcome to join in our debates.
I am not just a teacher but a parent of two students in Richland 2 public schools. My wife Gretchen and I have been thrilled with nearly all of their teachers. None has tried to drill any sort of doctrine into their heads. Instead our kids’ teachers have helped us help them learn to think for themselves.
Now that our kids are teenagers, Gretchen and I only occasionally regret raising two truly independent thinkers.
What we would truly regret is politicians violating our kids’ right, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “to follow the truth, wherever it may lead.”
Woody Holton, Peter and Bonnie McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, is the author of Abigail Adams (2009), which won the Guggenheim Fellowship and Bancroft Prize, and Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution, published in October 2021.