Jonathan Zimmerman’s essay attacking the 1619 Project in deeply flawed. Zimmerman is obviously right when he writes that “we must also avoid imposing a singular interpretation or ideology that will prevent — not promote — a true and honest education around race.” As a historian, I probably agree with Zimmerman more than the 1619 Project about the history of racism and its legacy in America. But I am dismayed by his dismissive use of a right-wing trope like “indoctrination” to denounce a viewpoint he dislikes.
Zimmerman offers a twisted view of the world. In Zimmerman’s perspective, mainstream history was never indoctrination when it excluded the viewpoint of the 1619 Project. But the 1619 Project is indoctrination if it fails to include the views of people who denounce it.
Zimmerman condemns Ibram Kendi’s list of suggested books in the New York Times as part of this “single-minded indoctrination around race.” Since when is a suggestion list of books a form of indoctrination? Silly me, I thought it was just one person’s recommendation for some interesting books to read, but Zimmerman has discovered that these are the only history books we’re ever allowed to read.
To begin his essay, Zimmerman invokes James Baldwin’s “Talk to Teachers,” claiming that it is a refutation of the 1619 Project, which is like using one quote from Martin Luther King Jr. to denounce affirmative action. Baldwin’s speech is precisely an argument for teaching the viewpoint of the 1619 Project.
Zimmerman is simply wrong to call Baldwin’s talk a critique of indoctrination. Baldwin wanted teaching to be honest about racism. He wasn’t demanding that white supremacist views be taught along with his view of racism. Baldwin explicitly says that if he were teaching black children, he would not expose them to a wide range of views about the world, but instead “I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.” James Baldwin makes the 1619 Project sound like Newt Gingrich.
ZImmerman approvingly quotes James Oakes’ awful analysis about the 1619 Project that “The worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis … If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?” Aside from being a bizarre overreaction to metaphorical rhetoric, the view that DNA is destiny is now most often expressed by those bigots who believe transgender people can’t exist. This view that we must not speak about the severity of racism or it will destroy the movement for reform is clearly false and incoherent, but worst of all it’s a betrayal of the job of a historian. A historian must be devoted to telling the truth, not selecting the best lie about history that they think will promote the social reforms they prefer. If people respond to the historical truth by feeling angry and hopeless, then the answer is to convince them to respond differently, not to manipulate the truth for your favored social cause.
ZImmerman argues, “surely any teacher using ‘The 1619 Project’ in class — as many have already begun to do — owes it to students to present contrasting perspectives on it.” I agree with that, although Zimmerman doesn’t offer any evidence that the 1619 Project is being taught anywhere as the only perspective. The problem is that Zimmerman doesn’t state the other side: Surely any teacher using the mainstream historical view owes it to students to present the contrasting perspective of the 1619 Project.
About 15 years ago, I taught an education class at Illinois State University where I assigned two critiques of textbooks, from the left and the right, James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me and Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. For many of these future teachers, it seemed, almost no one had suggested to them that a teacher could encourage students to question the textbook rather than recite it as given truth.
I am a firm believer in what Gerald Graff called “teach the conflicts,” the idea that we can learn more from hearing opposing viewpoints than getting one side’s received wisdom taught as the truth.
As individuals and as teachers, I think we need to seek out opposing views, we need to read books and hear ideas that we disagree with, that challenge our dogmas. As educational institutions, we need to create structures that encourage more discussion in classrooms and everywhere else, to have more debates with speakers, to have “two book” programs with conflicting ideas rather than “one book” programs, and to encourage discussions of ideas outside the mainstream.
But the first step to a debate is actually hearing the other side and not denouncing it as “indoctrination” merely because its viewpoint is expressed.
If you only preach “teach the conflicts” when there’s a leftist idea you dislike gaining prominence, if you don’t think mainstream views should be challenged by opposing perspectives, then you are a hypocrite who embraces indoctrination by me but not by thee.