Americans have often been politically divided, never more so than during the Civil War, in which we managed to kill more than 600,000 of each other. But have the divisions over how we recount our history ever been so deep? Following the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country in 2020, at least four states, three of them in New England, have required Black history to be part of school curriculums; seven more have established new courses on Native American or Asian American history. Meanwhile Florida governor Ron DeSantis has gotten far more attention for forbidding the state’s high schools from offering the Advanced Placement course in African American history, which he criticized as “woke” and “indoctrination”—a ban that stood even after the College Board timidly watered down the course’s content.
The Florida legislature has passed the Stop WOKE Act, which forbids instruction that could make someone feel guilty or ashamed about past actions by “other members of the same race, color, sex or national origin.” Idaho has banned schools from claiming that any people “by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past.” Iowa now forbids teaching “that the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.” Other red states are rushing down the same path, seeing political gold in denunciations of shaming.
For all their thunder about how schools should not make us ashamed of our history, Republican politicians have said far less about what should be taught. But a fascinating, detailed picture of their dream educational agenda is there for the downloading from the website of Hillsdale College.
Hillsdale is a small Christian school in Michigan whose campus has a shooting range and statues of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It is known for its deeply conservative worldview, expressed in online courses that it claims 3.5 million students have taken; in a Washington outpost, the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, which hard-right activist Ginni Thomas helped establish; and in teacher-training seminars, a nationwide network of charter schools, and close ties with red-state governors and education departments. Florida, for example, offers a $3,000 bonus to schoolteachers who take a Hillsdale-designed civics training course. When President Donald Trump, furious at The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project and its portrayal of slavery as central to American history, appointed a 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic education,” its chair was Hillsdale’s longtime president, Larry Arnn. Other Hillsdale alumni were sprinkled throughout the Trump administration.
More recently, Hillsdale officials have been helping Governor DeSantis review textbooks and revise Florida’s school curriculum. When DeSantis appointed half a dozen new trustees of New College of Florida, the honors college of the state university system, whose reputation for liberalism exasperated him, one was a professor and dean from Hillsdale. These trustees ousted New College’s president, and DeSantis’s chief of staff said he hoped the campus would now become a “Hillsdale of the South.”
The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum—which covers American history, government, and civics for kindergarten through high school—is a vast effort to prove that we have nothing to be ashamed of. It totals 3,268 pages at this writing and may be longer by the time you read this, because its creators have been adding new material. It does not take the place of textbooks—although it suggests which to use, repeatedly recommending one by a Hillsdale professor—but it provides teachers with quiz and exam questions, historical documents, and guidelines for what to discuss with their students. (There’s also a separate Hillsdale science curriculum. More about that another day.)
The 1776 Curriculum starts from the premise that “America is an exceptionally good country” and continues in that spirit. George Washington looms large, and we hear about him and the cherry tree, although this is acknowledged to be a “legend.” Kindergarten through second-grade students should be encouraged to learn by heart some of Washington’s “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” such as “Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof.” (Rupert Murdoch, too, might do well to learn this one by heart.) Teachers are urged to “conduct a round robin reading of the poem ‘Paul Revere’s Ride.’ Then discuss it with students and begin to have them learn parts of the poem by heart. Plan two days for each student to recite their parts aloud.” When they get to the American Revolution, they should ask students, “How did George Washington inspire his soldiers at Valley Forge?”
Just as the words of the Bible are sacred to evangelicals, the 1776 Curriculum treats the classic documents of American history as sacred texts. When it reaches the third-through-fifth-grade level, for example, it says of the Declaration of Independence:
Like an organizational mission statement, the Declaration is…a guiding star for our political life, and a benchmark for measuring our public institutions. Americans should consider all questions concerning the public sphere in light of the truths asserted in the Declaration. The Declaration of Independence should be both the beginning and end for students’ understanding of their country, their citizenship, and the benefits and responsibilities of being an American.
Most of Hillsdale’s other sacred texts are familiar, such as the Mayflower Compact, the Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech—which, the 1776 Curriculum is quick to point out, refers respectfully to the Declaration as a “promissory note” to all Americans. But along with these documents is one from a less expected source: Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge? Hillsdale likes Silent Cal not only because he was in favor of “limited government” but because of his 1926 speech “The Inspiration of the Declaration of Independence,” which is strongly recommended for both middle and high school students. In it he declared:
If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.
That takes care of any concern that developments in the two and a half centuries since 1776 might require the country’s “organizational mission statement” to be updated.
The 1776 Curriculum does not soft-pedal slavery, calling it “barbarous and tyrannical.” But it urges teachers to
consider with students the significance of the Constitution not using the word “slave” and instead using “person.” Refusing to use the word “slave” avoided giving legal legitimacy to slavery…. The use of the word “person” forced even slaveholders to recognize the humanity of the slave
—a claim those enslavers would have strenuously denied. And there is no mention at all of so much that accompanied slavery: widespread rape, for example, and the way slave sales shattered families. Thomas Jefferson’s name appears hundreds of times, but Sally Hemings’s never.
Similarly, the curriculum suggests that teachers tell their students about “George Washington’s time as a surveyor,” but nothing about the fortune he made speculating in land that had recently been occupied by Native Americans. In fact, the entire matter of how the nation’s territory was wrested away from its original inhabitants is skimmed over quickly: “The contact between indigenous North American and European civilizations resulted in both benefits and afflictions for natives and colonists alike” and was troubled by many “misunderstandings.”
Also of note in the 1776 Curriculum is its enthusiasm for something enshrined in another sacred text, the Constitution. The wise Electoral College system, middle and high school students should be told, has “forced presidential candidates to address the concerns not merely of large population centers like cities but also of rural and more remote populations.” Not mentioned is that the Electoral College also allows a candidate to become president while losing the popular vote—and tempts sore losers to manipulate the system. Appearing before the House of Representatives committee investigating the January 6, 2021, invasion of the US Capitol, the majority leader of the Michigan State Senate testified that one of those who pressured him to submit to the House a false, alternate slate of pro-Trump electors was Robert E. Norton II, vice-president of Hillsdale.
To its credit, the 1776 Curriculum includes voices it abhors; there are, for example, several speeches by Franklin D. Roosevelt. But it makes clear how students should read them. By the time of the New Deal, the country was burdened by “the so-called fourth branch [of government] called the bureaucracy or the administrative state.” Among proposed quiz questions is “How does the administrative state violate the principle of separation of powers?” And harking back to the sacred Declaration is the suggestion that “students should…consider whether political life under centralized, bureaucratic rule might be understood to resemble the rule of a faraway parliament or king.”
The most notable thing about the 1776 Curriculum, however, is what is not in it. Its view of American history is all politics and no economics. It praises the right to vote (conceding that it took the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to fully enforce that right), trial by jury, and the separation of powers. All these, of course, are splendid principles, but they do not take account of the fact that ever more power is not political. Today Walmart has nearly twice as many employees as the entire active-duty US military. Washington lobbyists outnumber members of Congress roughly twenty to one (that’s just the registered lobbyists), and they often take a hand in drafting laws. Many state governments reliably bow to the power of major industries: petrochemicals in Louisiana, for instance, or coal in West Virginia. For a century and a half, economic power has been increasingly concentrated in corporate empires and the families who own them. A study a few years ago found that the three richest Americans possessed more wealth than the poorest 160 million, and the disparities since then have only grown. It’s a far cry from “all men are created equal.”
Moreover, economic power helps shape the climate of ideas, which in turn shapes politics. Donations from ultrawealthy right-wing families are responsible, for example, for tiny Hillsdale—with some 1,600 undergraduates—having an endowment approaching $1 billion. Among its supporters have been the Koch brothers and the family of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and her brother, Erik Prince, the founder of the military and security contractor Blackwater and a Hillsdale graduate.
More broadly, missing from the 1776 Curriculum is the idea that constitutional rights are only a beginning. Not only is there a vast gulf in wealth, but because of the way wealth, or its absence, gets passed down through the generations, we are still living with the consequences of slavery. The median white American household has eight times the wealth of the median Black household, a gap that has changed little for decades. The 1776 Curriculum praises the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted 160 acres of public land to families who agreed to farm it, as a boon to both immigrants and “freedmen,” but neglects to mention that racist officials and lack of capital prevented all but a handful of the newly freed from taking advantage of it. The catalog of such inequalities could be much longer. However enlightened the sacred texts may be, they alone are not sufficient building blocks for a truly fair and just society.
If the 1776 Curriculum is in one corner of the ring in this round of the history wars, in the other corner, coming out swinging, is the latest incarnation of the 1619 Project. First presented as articles in The New York Times Magazine, then as a podcast series, lesson plans for schools, and a book, the project took its name from the year that the first shipload of captive Africans for sale arrived in the new colony of Virginia—a year before the traditionally celebrated landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts. The project argued that slavery and its legacy have profoundly shaped American life in the four centuries since then. This effort has now taken new shape as a six-part documentary series on Hulu, which will undoubtedly be used in many classrooms as well.
The series is not without flaws, and some are no fault of the creators. Many thorny problems face Black Americans today: that intractable wealth gap, the de facto resegregation of our schools, the drab and low-paying jobs available for people who graduate from them, the grim legacy of housing discrimination, and the myriad new laws in Republican-controlled states designed to chip away at the number of Black voters. These are all far less dramatic than the great marches for civil rights, Bull Connor’s police force attacking peaceful demonstrators with batons and dogs in Birmingham, Alabama, and the vast crowd that Martin Luther King Jr. and others addressed at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Such events were central to documentaries of several decades ago, such as Henry Hampton’s classic Eyes on the Prize series for PBS (two parts, 1987 and 1990) or the excellent Freedom on My Mind (1994) by Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford. But to its credit, the 1619 Project’s documentary shows very little familiar footage of the struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, and instead takes on the tough issues of today.
Some problems might have been avoided. In the first episode of the series, the host and 1619 Project originator Nikole Hannah-Jones stubbornly sticks to a contention that in earlier versions drew criticism from historians. The proclamation by Lord Dunmore, the British governor of colonial Virginia, granting freedom to enslaved men who joined the British army to fight rebels against the Crown, she says, was a “tipping point” in drawing their outraged owners to the revolutionary cause. There’s no question that Dunmore’s proclamation infuriated them. But a tipping point it was not, for by the time he issued it in November 1775, the revolt against the British was already underway. Nearly five months earlier, George Washington had donned his uniform as commander of the Continental Army. And his fellow Virginia enslaver Patrick Henry had given his influential “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech months before that.
What audience does the 1619 Project documentary address? Implicitly all of us, but that is no easy path to follow in a nation riven by identity politics. Throughout the series, Hannah-Jones is both the narrator and the on-screen interviewer, sometimes with almost as much to say as the person she is interviewing. She takes the viewer to Waterloo, Iowa, where she grew up; to Mississippi, where her father was born to sharecroppers; and to New York, where she has lived as an adult. We see her old home movies and photos, hear about members of her extended family, and meet one of her cousins. This narrative strategy differs from that of Eyes on the Prize, whose episodes had a variety of directors and kept the interviewers more in the background, and from the 1619 Project’s book, whose chapters, to its benefit, are by many different authors. Seeing slavery and its long aftereffects entirely through Hannah-Jones will be powerful for those who can identify with her. But a different approach might invite more viewers. Six hours is a long time for one figure to dominate the screen, no matter who it is.
Again and again, however, Hannah-Jones tackles the dark sides of history that the upbeat 1776 Curriculum ignores. The second episode, for instance, focuses on women. She interviews a historian who talks about the crucial importance, in an otherwise patrilineal legal system, of the 1662 Virginia law declaring that children born to Black mothers—so often the result of rape by white men—“would have the status of their mothers…. They were enslavable.” Such men had an incentive to rape enslaved women or to force selected pairs of their human property to “breed,” because it increased their labor supply. With another historian, Hannah-Jones discusses the nineteenth-century journal of Fanny Kemble, the British wife of a Georgia plantation owner, who notes that many slave children she sees bear a striking facial resemblance to a father-son pair of white overseers.
Other episodes zero in on more matters that the no-shame Hillsdale worldview evades: the wealth gap, for example, and some of its causes. We see color-coded maps that show how, for nearly thirty years, 98 percent of federal housing loans went to white families. And we hear about the powerful southern congressional committee chairmen who forced New Deal programs like Social Security to exclude categories of labor in which Blacks were concentrated, like domestic and agricultural work. In the episode dealing with police brutality, the series effectively uses footage of a number of the appalling police killings of unarmed Black Americans that have taken place in recent years, much of it from the officers’ own body cameras.
One portion of that hour is unexpectedly inspiring. In the tense summer of 2020, several dozen New York City police officers besiege the home of the Black Lives Matter organizer Derrick Ingram, trying to arrest him for allegedly shouting through a megaphone into an officer’s ear. Ingram wisely deadbolts and chains his apartment door shut and demands to see a warrant for his arrest, which the police do not have. Meanwhile, between phone calls to lawyers, he streams the entire six-hour standoff on Instagram Live, broadcasting the shouts of the officers and video of him replying to them calmly. A helicopter circles overhead, and sharpshooters are positioned nearby. Supporters soon gather in the street outside, eventually outnumbering the police and shouting in unison, “Where’s the warrant! Where’s the warrant!” A camera pans across their faces, mostly masked against Covid: Black, white, brown, almost all young. Finally the police, defeated, withdraw.
If you have the right kind of subscription to Hulu you don’t have to endure commercials, but the rest of us can’t avoid them. It was eerie to watch this series, which deals with the harsh heritage of human beings as property, and see it repeatedly interrupted by advertisements for other types of property: upscale furniture, vacation resorts, sleek cars, Peloton bikes, Chanel perfume. And perhaps because projected viewer data told ad agencies that many Black people would be watching, a high proportion of the models exuberantly enjoying all these goods were Black. Yet many of the people on the screen between the ads could never afford the products shown. This is the dream fed to us again and again, the green light Gatsby sees on the distant dock: the myth that as an American you will finally, magically, have everything you want.
The reality of life in this country, shown eloquently in the forceful fourth episode of the series, “Capitalism,” is that a high percentage of Black Americans have long been stuck in dead-end jobs. And here Hannah-Jones pulls off a stunning juxtaposition. One scene takes us to an archive where the historian Caitlin Rosenthal displays a ledger from a Mississippi plantation called Pleasant Hill. For a week in September 1850, columns filled by graceful copperplate handwriting with curling flourishes on the capital letters show first the name of an enslaved person—one name only: Sandy, Scott, Solomon, Bill, Jerry, Isaac—then, day by day, Monday through Saturday, the exact number of pounds of cotton each had picked. If there’s no figure for cotton picked on a particular day, a word or two in the column explains the reason: runaway, sick, or a female giving birth. And of course these men and women were all at risk of being whipped if they did not pick cotton fast enough. “This is like an assembly line,” says Rosenthal.
Then the film cuts to another kind of assembly line, in an Amazon warehouse. One such warehouse, on Staten Island, was the scene of the first successful attempt to form a labor union at an Amazon facility in the US. More than 60 percent of the low-wage workers at this warehouse are Latino or Black. Derrick Palmer, a high school graduate and Black union activist who has worked there for six years, also talks about picking—picking the innumerable items ordered from Amazon and swiftly packaged and shipped. Every time you order something on the Amazon website, Palmer explains, it shows up on the computer of someone like him at a warehouse: “I’ve picked, on an average, 350 to 400 items an hour. They push you to pick 400.” The workers are allotted seven seconds to scan the barcode for each. We see packages with the familiar logo zipping down a chute of rollers to be loaded onto trucks and rushed to us.
Then it’s back to the Pleasant Hill plantation ledger, a different page now. Each line across it has four columns: an enslaved person’s name, age, “value at commencement of the year,” and “value at end of the year.” That change might be due to the current market price of human beings and on the individual’s age, skills, health, or, for a woman, record of bearing healthy babies who would eventually have value themselves. On the facing page of the ledger is a similar list of values for the plantation’s horses, mules, and cattle. In one of her occasional overstatements, Hannah-Jones claims that American capitalism was “born on the plantation,” which is not really true. But what is true is the centrality of human property in this country’s history. At the time of the Civil War, the monetary value of the country’s enslaved men, women, and children was greater than that of all its factories and railroads combined.
The interweaving of those two storylines—which enraged the National Review’s critic, who called it “morally offensive”—doesn’t explicitly claim that Amazon’s workers are slaves. Of course they’re not: at the workday’s end they are not whipped or sold; they are free to go home and spend the evening watching TV commercials for impossibly expensive products and credit card consolidation loans. But this masterful part of the series is a powerful and unsettling reminder of just how deeply the slave economy reduced human beings not merely to labor but to precisely measurable quantities of labor—and of how a vast corporation most of us now order from does exactly the same thing.
Forget Ron DeSantis’s bombast about how we shouldn’t feel shamed for something that happened two centuries ago; this is something shameful that is part of our national life now. Its victims are of all colors, but disproportionately Black and brown. Seeing their working conditions depicted on the screen leaves you feeling that the fight by the country’s ill-paid workers to better their lives, like the unionization drive at Amazon and many other businesses, is a crusade for human dignity that deserves the same honor and support as the great civil rights demonstrations that stirred the national conscience more than half a century ago. And wasn’t that the message of Martin Luther King Jr. in his final campaign, supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, where he met his death?
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