FRIDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2020
Babes in arms enter the schools: As with the show the kids put on in the Mickey-and-Judy film, Babes in Arms, the New York Times' 1619 Project came together amazingly fast.
The speed is especially striking given the sweep of the project. Somehow, a bunch of journalists got it into their heads that this ambition made sense:
The 1619 Project
In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.
Finally! Finally, someone was going to tell our [nation's] story truthfully!
No one had ever done it before. It would now be done by these kids!
When the truthful story emerged, their work was perhaps underwhelming. There was little new about the story, which had been told many times before.
Everyone already knew the story. Needless to say, though, the kids went on to win a Pulitzer prize.
The New York Times' Nikole Hannah-Jones is a good, decent person. In the project's introductory essay, she told the story of her father, and of her father's mother.
Her father's mother came from what was truly our "greatest generation." By the time this generation had completed its endless sacrifices, a new generation had emerged which was perhaps just a bit hubristic.
In fairness, we humans are all inclined to be that way as soon as we get the chance.
A few years before, Hannah-Jones' long report for ProPublica was full of information about Tuscaloosa's public schools. That wealth of information had been the fruit of deep reporting.
Now, she described a familiar (brutal) history, giving it a bit of a "TV miniseries" feel. Especially given the importance of its subject matter, the project had come together amazingly fast—and, according to Bret Stephens' recent account, it even included this:
STEPHENS (10/11/20): About a month before the project’s publication, [editor Jake] Silverstein reached out to the Pulitzer Center to propose a 1619 curriculum for schools. Soon thereafter, the project was being introduced into classrooms across the country.
We can't vouch for the perfect accuracy of that chronology. At the same time, we know of no reason to doubt it.
That chronology comes from a recent column in which Stephens made some sensible points about the 1619 Project, while also wandering afield at times. For one thing, Stephens engaged in a pointless dispute about when the nation's "true" founding occurred.
If our nation had public logicians, they would have rushed to tell us that semantic disputes of this type serve no useful purpose—that there are many important dates in this nation's variegated history, and that 1619 and 1776 are two such important dates.
Our nation's culture and essence arise from various points of departure. Aside from satisfying the age-old desire for war, there's nothing to gain from arguing about when the "true" or "real" foundational moment occurred.
In our view, Stephens made that timeless mistake, but he also made some perfectly decent points about the project. Along the way, he produced that chronology, describing the astonishing speed with which this underwhelming project had been introduced into the nation's schools.
According to Stephens, the Times reached out to the Pulitzer Center in July 2019. "Soon thereafter," a curriculum was being introduced into classrooms. Not long after that, the Pulitzer board gave the Times its latest prize.
At Education Week, a young journalist named Madeline Will reported on this part of the project.
Will was five years out of college; in 2014, she'd graduated from UNC with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science. In familiar fashion, Education Week was describing her as an (unspecified) "expert." So too with everyone else on its staff.
What was this young reporter an expert in? Education Week didn't say. But after a somewhat jumbled start to her report, Will described a thoroughly sensible point of concern:
WILL (8/19/19): To bring this groundbreaking project into the classroom, the Pulitzer Center created a curriculum for teachers of all grade levels. The curriculum asks students to examine the history and the legacy of slavery in the United States, as well as our national memory.
A report last year from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights and advocacy organization, found there's no systematic approach to teaching slavery in schools—and lessons often miss crucial components to understanding this fundamental American topic. It's taught as a Southern phenomenon, rather than something originally sanctioned in the Constitution, and the voices and experiences of enslaved people are generally left out. And just over half of the teachers surveyed said they spoke about the continued legacy of slavery.
Many teachers surveyed said they were concerned about terrifying black children or making white children feel guilty. (There are also teachers who do slavery simulations, like a mock slave auction or a game about the Underground Railroad, to try to convey the brutality—but experts and educators say that these simulations can minimize horrific events and cause emotional trauma to black students.)
Did a lot of teachers voice such concerns? If so, we'd have to say that their concerns were valid.
Our nation's brutal racial history takes us deep into the ugly realm of "the world the slaveholders made." We enter very delicate territory when we "teach" children about such topics. This is especially true when we're working with the youngest children in the earliest grades.
Long ago and far away, we talked about "race" with the good, decent kids in our fifth grade classes. We discussed the life of Frederick Douglass, our fellow Baltimorean. (Also, our fellow American and our fellow person.)
In 1851, Douglass published the first of his several autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. In the book's opening chapters, Douglass described his early years on Maryland's "Eastern Shore."
In those first few chapters, Douglass describes behaviors of astounding cruelty—behaviors he was forced to observe as a child. These behaviors occurred not long ago, right here in this very state.
Because those kids were in fifth grade, the books they read about Frederick Douglass didn't go into such vicious detail. Still, those children were puzzled by an obvious question. They wanted to know, and they asked:
How could people ever have treated other people that way?
We told them we'd tell them what we thought, but that it was just our own opinion. We told them that they would decide what they thought about all such questions as they grew up.
We told them they should always talk to their parents or their guardians about such matters first. We told them that we would tell them what we thought, but that we were just their teacher, while their parents and guardians were the people who, for them, came first.
Teachers who voiced those concerns to Madeline Will may have known whereof they spoke. Our racial history is astonishingly brutal and ugly.
Meanwhile, the conceptual frameworks the slaveholders made stay with us to this day. This includes the conceptual framework according to which everyone has a "race."
Public schools should be very careful in the ways they approach such matters. They're dealing with the most painful topics we have, and with children's tender minds.
Public schools should be careful. But straight ahead rushed the Pulitzer Center, before giving the Times its top prize.
Question: How much does the Pulitzer Center know about public school education? It wouldn't be easy for anyone to create curriculum in such a difficult area, but why should the Pulitzer Center be the agency rushing ahead on this project?
In our view, the (extremely limited) curriculum developed by the Pulitzer Center is a sad, familiar embarrassment.
We're especially struck by the foolish way the Center says that some of its materials are suitable for "All Grades." On a much smaller scale, we're struck by the way the Center seems to have had a young person who was one year out of college authoring this part of its curriculum.
The kids had decided to put on a show; they'd rushed ahead with their staging. They dragged the Pulitzer Center in. Later, they won its top prize.
Way back when, Maureen Dowd also won a Pulitzer prize. She won the prize in April 2000. Seven months later, on the Sunday before our presidential election, she started her column like this, headline included:
DOWD (11/6/00): I Feel PrettyI feel stunning
And entrancing,Feel like running and dancing for joy . . .
O.K., enough gloating. Behave, Albert. Just look in the mirror now and put on your serious I only-care-about-the-issues face.
If I rub in a tad more of this mahogany-colored industrial mousse, the Spot will disappear under my Reagan pompadour...
Twenty years later, the New York Times won another Pulitzer. We think its rushed, D-minus curriculum helps drive home a pair of points we've persistently made:
No one cares about black kids. Also, our self-branded modern elites just aren't super-sharp.