Civics education should be historically accurate

Posted 3/25/21

The Wyoming House Education Committee last week shot down a bill that was aimed at an education system the sponsor sees as “very much tiling more towards a liberal view.” Opponents’ …

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Civics education should be historically accurate


The Wyoming House Education Committee last week shot down a bill that was aimed at an education system the sponsor sees as “very much tiling more towards a liberal view.” Opponents’ main concern was that House Bill 177 defined what civics curriculum should be taught and took too much control from local boards, which usually make decisions on materials taught at schools they oversee, in line with state standards.

The debate at the committee’s March 17 hearing was overshadowed by the comments of the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, who said, among other things, that “It needs to be brought forward … that slavery was not maybe what it has been painted as in this nation, completely.”

While neither the bill nor Haroldson mentioned The 1619 Project, Jillian Balow, Wyoming superintendent of public education, as well as co-sponsor Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, discussed it at the meeting. 

As controversial as it may be to suggest there are different views of slavery, this is precisely what The 1619 Project argues, and as Balow pointed out, it’s being taught in 3,400 American schools — possibly some in Wyoming. 

Most of us learned in school that slavery was an evil institution that was rightfully abolished after a bloody civil conflict over 150 years ago. 

Published in The New York Times in September 2019, The 1619 Project is a series of essays that attempts to “reframe, understanding 1619 as our true founding, the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” 

So, this narrative argues, the year slaves were first brought to the colonies is what initiated our nation, and not 1776, the year we signed the Declaration of Independence.  

WyoFile reported that the project is “maligned by conservatives,” but more importantly it’s been denounced by prominent historians as being historically inaccurate. 

Five of them wrote a letter to The New York Times, perturbed “at some of the factual errors in the project.” They contradicted the project’s contention that the American Revolution was launched “in order to ensure slavery would continue,” arguing that claim is factually incorrect and unsubstantiated. 

Leslie Harris, a Northwestern University historian, was brought onto the project as a fact checker during its development. She said she “vigorously disputed” that claim. Despite this, her objections were ignored in the final product. 

Other historians and scholars, such as John McWhorter, an African American linguist who describes himself as a Democrat, have also been critical of the project, which received a Pulitzer Prize. 

The Times later rewrote a passage in the project’s online format to remove the suggestion that it was trying to make 1619 our “true founding.” The publication did this without any kind of editor’s note acknowledging or explaining the change, something that’s generally frowned upon in journalism. 

In discussing how the project is included in civics curriculum in public schools across the country, Balow mentioned how problematic this unacknowledged revision of the project’s intent is, saying, “Civics education is not fluid. It’s a foundation.” 

Haroldson’s bill required classroom civics materials to be a study of threats to a free society including slavery, the political extremisms of fascism and communism, religious prejudice and discrimination, and identity politics.

This effectively defined state standards of civics curriculum with a political bias as overt as that of The 1619 Project, and the committee was right to vote against it. 

But separate from this bill, there are legitimate concerns over materials being used in the classroom that teach that this country’s story is one of oppression. That is certainly a part of our history, which needs to be taught and understood, but not while dismissing America’s accomplishments, progress and exceptionalism. 

Balow said she supported the concept of the bill, arguing, “This bill just provides an opportunity — a roadmap, if you will — for Wyoming educators and for school districts to discern, distill, and implement civics materials and curriculum that is consistent with a democratic republic and with American exceptionalism.” 

As Neiman explained, the committee’s discussion is speaking to “a level of frustration that comes from a lack of understanding of who we are as a nation.” 

Our founders proclaimed that all men are created equal, and however imperfectly they applied that ideal — even owning slaves themselves — attempts to rewrite America’s story as one that is bound up in the struggle of one race to achieve freedom and equality, in a nation that was established intently to oppose that struggle, contains a strong ideological bias and no historical accuracy. 

If children are being taught about The 1619 Project, it should be in a context that shows it is but one view of the history of slavery and not one well supported by historians.