The Education Department has been inundated with thousands of complaints about its plan to encourage schools to teach a race-based view of American history that opponents say is both inaccurate and racially divisive.
The lion’s share of the more than 35,000 comments opposed the idea when the Biden administration last month invited input on proposed grants to K-12 schools that focus on slavery and racism as the defining characteristic of the American experience, a curriculum known as critical race theory.
Spurring outrage, in particular, was the department’s mention of the New York Times’ “The 1619 Project” as an example of what the Biden administration wants to see more of in civics classes.
The project, which reframed U.S. history around slavery and racism, has become a flashpoint in a political fight over racial justice, cancel culture and what American children are taught about their country.
Despite winning a Pulitzer Prize last year, “The 1619 Project” is criticized by historians for making historically inaccurate assertions, including that the Founding Fathers fought the American Revolution to preserve slavery.
“This critical race theory, ‘1619 Project’ curriculum, is an exercise in pure idiocy masking as a system of instruction in American education,” wrote one man, John Guess, of Roland, Arkansas.
He echoed thousands of other commenters who sounded off about the proposed grant program.
Mr. Guess said the inclusion of “The 1619 Project” in the classroom represents a decline in American education and “a systematic dumbing down of our children and youth.”
“’The overriding lesson is clear: young people must learn to despise their nation—its Constitution, ideals, economic system, and its Founders,’” wrote another commenter, J. Robert Gallant.
Mr. Gallant, of Maine, was quoting one of the critics of the newspaper series, Arthur Milikh, a former associate director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies.
The avalanche of criticism was encouraged by the Civics Alliance, a coalition of conservative groups promoting civics education based on the U.S.’s founding principles and documents, key historical events and the spirit of liberty and tolerance.
David Randall, the director of the alliance, said the proposed grant program was steeped in “anti-Americanism.”
“The document promotes unserious, pernicious and debunked myths such as the New York Times’ ‘1619 Project,’” Mr. Randall wrote in a call to action sent the group’s supporters.
The 35,000 comments represent a massive reaction, though the department has seen a greater volume of responses. In 2018, a Trump administration proposal to raise the bar of proof for sexual assault complaints on college campuses received 124,000 comments that mostly opposed the idea.
The Trump administration’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, nevertheless finalized the rule.
Still, opponents of the grant program are hopeful that this time the outpouring of criticism will make Education Secretary Miguel Cardona back down.
“They do count the comments,” said Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. “The comments have been overwhelmingly negative. The fact that the American people have reacted so strongly against having the children indoctrinated — I don’t know what they’re going to do.”
The deluge of criticism arrived despite the Education Department’s attempts to downplay the idea that it will dictate what schools teach or that it will require incorporating “The 1619 Project” in the American history curriculum.
The Education Department said in April that the department had mentioned “The 1619 Project,” only to give “examples of how institutions and individuals are finally acknowledging the legacy of systemic inequities in this country and paying attention to it.”
Mr. Cardona, questioned by reporters last month at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 National Seminar, said he wasn’t trying to impose a curriculum on the schools. He argued that students of color are more likely to feel engaged in class if they feel like they are part of the history lesson.
“I don’t think it’s our role as a federal government to be dictating what’s going to be taught in the curriculum,” Mr. Cardona said. “I’m an educator at heart. I’m a teacher at heart. My role doesn’t influence curriculum. Nor do I believe the secretary of education or the Department of Education should be telling local districts what to teach in their courses.”
“Curriculum should be a window into other cultures. It should be a mirror where you see yourself in it, and it should provide sliding glass doors where you can walk in for a little bit to see what other people experience.”
Mr. Cardona on April 19 proposed creating a grant program to encourage schools to teach in a way as to “reflect the diversity, identities, histories, contributions, and experiences of all students and create inclusive, supportive, and identity-safe learning environments.”
Part of the goal, the proposal said, is to teach about slavery. “There is growing acknowledgment of the importance of including, in the teaching and learning of our country’s history, both the consequences of slavery and the significant contributions of Black Americans to our society,” it said. “This acknowledgment is reflected, for example, in the New York Times’ landmark ‘1619 Project’ and in the resources of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History.”
Schools applying for the grants would have to show how they intend to “take into account systemic marginalization, biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history.”
Mr. Randall, though, said it’s misleading to suggest Mr. Cardona doesn’t want to push schools to change how it teaches history.
“The financial incentive is crucial — school districts will go where the dollars are. And more to the point, it will give education bureaucrats an excuse — we have to do this to get federal grant money,” he said. “When the Education Department mentions the 1619 Project and racist ‘anti-racism,’ that clearly signals that they desire grant applications of that nature.”
The proposal mentioned Ibram X. Kendi, a Black professor and a pioneer of critical race theory. Mr. Kendi has argued that White people are complicit in perpetuating systemic racism, regardless of their thoughts or actions. Part of the remedy, according to the theory, calls for an unspecified period of reverse discrimination to smash entrenched White supremacist institutions.
To the defenders of “The 1619 Project,” what’s now taught in classrooms gives an incomplete and white-washed version of American history.
The project’s lead essay, written by Nikole Hannah-Jones, was titled “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.”
In it, Ms. Hannah-Jones contends that most American history classes leave out the role slavery played in making the colonies economically strong enough to take on Great Britain. As such, she wrote, the real founding of America should be considered to be 1619 when the first slaves in the colonies were bought from pirates.
In one of her most controversial assertions, Ms. Hannah-Jones said that the founding fathers declared the colonies’ independence of Britain, “to ensure slavery would continue.”
After a group of historians demanded a correction to the fallacy and The Times made a clarification “to make clear that a desire to protect slavery was among the motivations of some of the colonists who fought the Revolutionary War, not among the motivations of all of them.”
Among those expressing support for the proposed grant program is the nation’s largest teachers union.
“The default curriculum in the United States is Euro-centric, often glossing over or sanitizing periods of American history like Reconstruction and focusing on the valuable contributions of European-Americans while portraying people of color primarily as passive victims,” wrote the National Education Association. “This curriculum can contribute to students developing a negative sense of their ethnic identity, which is correlated with lower academic achievement.”
The union noted a study that found white students who learned about the history of racism in the U.S. had more positive views of African Americans and engaged in less stereotyping.
The NEA declined further comment when contacted by The Washington Times.
Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, also backed the proposal. “We have already seen what it looks like without an antiracist, anti-bias approach to education: childhood education that is rooted in half-truths and outright lies, in which students of color do not see themselves reflected in what they learn, the realities of racism are swept under the rug, and the real needs and concerns for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students are ignored.”
For the majority who wrote to the department, however, it is Ms. Hannah-Jones who wants to portray a distorted view of history, focusing on only the dark side and ignoring the progress made on civil rights.
“These proposed funding priorities will encourage America’s schools to inculcate their students with partisan and ideological anti-American propaganda,” the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the America First Policy Institute wrote in a joint letter to the department.
Rather than being founded on racism, “The American Republic was forged on the belief that all human beings ‘are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,’” the groups wrote. “This Nation was founded on the principles of ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,’ which are inherently embedded in our laws, traditions, and beliefs.”
America has stayed true to those values, the groups wrote, as women won the right to vote and the nation has passed civil rights laws and protections for people with disabilities.
“Despite this remarkable history, the Department has chosen to encourage the espousal of civics education programs that ignore and minimize America’s inimitable and distinctive role in the establishment of a free world,” read the comment letter. “As a result, students will be taught to ignore the virtue and achievements of this country; they will be taught that America’s heroes are villains and that the founding of this Nation is suspect.”