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Actual Indoctrination Comes to Public Schools

Actual Indoctrination Comes to Public Schools

Four years ago, The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, a series of essays aiming to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” sparked heated debate.

Some criticisms of the essays were substantive, others less so. The backlash, however, has endured long after the initial arguments died down. Following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Republican-controlled states enacted a set of education gag laws censoring historical instruction around race. A few such laws specifically banned the teaching of materials associated with the 1619 Project.

The nexus to the 2020 racial-justice protests is important. The gag laws were part of a larger attempt to prevent young people from concluding that racial discrimination against Black people is a contemporary problem in need of rectification. Supporters of such laws defended them by insisting that students were being brainwashed by left-wing propaganda and being taught from materials that misrepresented historical fact. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank seeking to undermine public schools, made the connection explicit in 2020, asserting that children are “trapped in government-run schools” where “they learn that America is a nation of imperialism, greed, and racism.”

Adam Serwer: The fight over the 1619 Project is not about the facts

Imperialism, greed, and racism are important parts of American history in any nonfiction account. Contrary to the popular conservative belief that public schools overemphasize the importance of slavery, most public schools in the U.S. still underplay its significance relative to the historical record—by, for example, failing to recognize it as the primary cause of the Civil War. The opposite impression was cultivated by some right-wing media outlets, justifying the campaign of censorship and propaganda that followed.

The long term objective of this alarmism was demonizing and then defunding public schools. In the short term, its proponents wanted to impose history instruction that teaches, by assertion or implication, that racial inequality is not a consequence of American history or public policy, and, therefore, that there is never any reason to fill the streets in protest of it, let alone legislate remedies for it.

The backlash began shortly after publication of the 1619 Project. In December 2019, several months after the project’s publication, a group of decorated historians signed a public letter raising a series of objections to the assertions in the opening essay of the 1619 Project, written by Nikole Hannah-Jones, most of which were debatable but one of which was clear: The original text overemphasized slavery’s role in the American Revolution.

The text was ultimately changed from “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” to “some of the colonists,” a more qualified claim than the original and one consistent with an ongoing debate on the subject among historians about the Revolution. “This is an important discussion to have, and we are eager to see it continue,” the Times Magazine’s editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, wrote. The theme of Hannah-Jones’s Pulitzer Prize–winning essay—learning to understand her father’s patriotism, despite the nation’s history of racism—was largely ignored or misrepresented by critics.

Most of the other objections—to the claims that Black Americans fought for their freedom “largely alone,” that the United States was founded on slavery, and that Abraham Lincoln was not a believer in Black equality—are questions of interpretation, emphasis, and framing. Did Black people struggle “largely alone?” There were always white antislavery activists, but often very few, and most enslaved Black people never met one. Was the U.S. founded on slavery? The answer depends on your perspective—the importance of slavery in shaping the Constitution is significant, even if you believe that tension does not overshadow the document’s philosophical commitments to liberty for all. Were Lincoln’s actions—abolishing slavery, recruiting Black troops, preserving the Union—more important than the racist positions he took earlier in life? I believe unquestionably so. But that’s my belief, and there’s nothing ahistorical about acknowledging his evolution.

The 1619 Project did inspire some illuminating conversations, including among its critics, but it also provoked hysterical reactions. The conservative pastor Robert Jeffress attacked the project, warning that “the way the Nazis gained control of Germany was first to take control of the educational system.” The historian Allen Guelzo complained that it should have celebrated the history of racial progress in America rather than deploring its “seeming slowness,” writing that “in no human society has an enslaved people suddenly found itself vaulted into positions of such privilege, and with the consent—even the approbation—of those who were once the enslavers.” The project’s conceit was to trace slavery’s ongoing legacy through American history; it seems rather clear why Black people’s ongoing fight for equality, rather than gratitude toward white people for being allowed to exist in American society, would be the main theme.

The first thing that followed these criticisms of the 1619 Project’s flaws was censorship—the imposition of laws all over the country that sought to excise any arguments that might lead to nonconservative conclusions. But now the saga has come full circle, with Oklahoma and Florida approving material from the right-wing content mill PragerU for use in schools, as Republicans who complained about propaganda and brainwashing seek to fill public schools with propaganda and brainwashing.

As the liberal watchdog Media Matters documents, PragerU’s animated videos are comically ahistorical. One features Booker T. Washington rationalizing American slavery and telling kids that they “have nothing to be sorry about” because “future generations are never responsible for the sins of the past.” Another features Frederick Douglass—who in real life said the proper response to the Fugitive Slave Act was to “make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers”—condemning “radicalism” and falsely stating that the U.S. “started the conversation” about abolishing slavery.

Another clip features Lincoln stating—in the midst of waging war against the Confederacy—that “yelling and scolding the South for the harm they caused” is “not going to get me or the nation anywhere.” I suppose this might be accurate if the cartoon Lincoln then said, “Only shattering the Confederacy and its slaver army by force of arms will do that,” but that’s clearly not the implication of the clip.

Another video features Ulysses S. Grant praising Robert E. Lee as a “good man” and saying, “We were just caught on the opposite side of things.” As Ron Chernow writes in his biography of Grant, the future president was disgusted by former West Point graduates—like Lee—who had turned their arms against their country, and memorably described the southern cause as “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

Perhaps my favorite example, however, is the one that insists that the “Founding Fathers knew that slavery was evil and wrong … But their first priority was getting all 13 colonies to unite as one country.” The intention is to redeem the Founders; the effect is to establish that slavery was so integral to the colonies that no union was conceivable without preserving it. Even this friendly framing validates the critiques it is meant to disprove—not that any teacher or student would be allowed to make that point in the current censorship regime.

These representations do far more violence to historical fact than anything in the 1619 Project, and it is clarifying that this is the material that some of those who reacted so hysterically to the 1619 Project now wish to employ to educate children. Their objection was not to propaganda, brainwashing, or indoctrination: They wanted those things, but they simply wanted right-wing propaganda, brainwashing, and indoctrination. The objective behind this campaign was not to depoliticize classroom history, but to make it as ideologically right-wing as possible, regardless of underlying historical facts. It’s not even the first time this has happened.

“We bring doctrines to children. That’s a very fair statement,” PragerU founder Dennis Prager said the Moms for Liberty Annual Conference, according to Florida public radio station WUSF. “But what is the bad of our indoctrination?”

Adam Serwer: Why conservatives want to cancel the 1619 Project

Where the 1619 Project openly announced its intention to spark discussion, the combination of laws that prohibit the discussion of particular ideas and the adoption of overt right-wing propaganda as part of school curricula is an attempt to ensure that nothing resembling discussion can be had. Better students learn falsehoods and come to the correct political conclusions than learn historical facts that could lead them to the wrong ones.

These fictionalizations of American history are mainly focused on the sentiment at the core of many of the objections to the 1619 Project: that its emphasis on the persistence of anti-Black racism in American history was too harsh. But if there were no truth to that interpretation at all, then neither the conservative censorship campaign nor the fairy-tale propaganda proposed as an alternative would exist.

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