America’s future should be built on a shared understanding of the past that is accurate and expansive, not falsely embellished and narrowly selective, according to a new forum in Harvard’s Education Next journal featuring some of the nation’s foremost history scholars and practitioners.
With race in the classroom and the New York Times’s 1619 Project at the center of recent state legislative efforts and extensive press coverage, the forum provides new perspective and guidance for schools and teachers. Contributors include Danielle Allen (Harvard University), Daina Ramey Berry (University of Texas at Austin), David W. Blight (Yale University), Allen C. Guelzo (Princeton University), Robert Maranto (University of Arkansas), Ian V. Rowe (American Enterprise Institute), and Adrienne Stang (Cambridge Public Schools, Mass.).
“Those who seek to teach a sanitized version of history to achieve some false sense of patriotic education do our country and students a disservice, and, ironically, so do those who cherry-pick the most egregiously cruel acts to weave together a narrative of a permanent American malignancy of racism,” Rowe writes.
Berry encourages the presentation of multiple perspectives and original sources. “The vacuum created by our public-school teaching has been filled by many myths about slavery. Much of what we know has been taught exclusively from the perspective of enslavers and with the view that it was a Southern, plantationbased, cotton-producing enterprise. But slavery existed in all 13 colonies,” she writes. “Asking how to teach about slavery is a little like asking why we teach at all,” Blight writes. “We teach this subject because it is there, and it is so important. How can we not teach about this deeply human and American story and so many others like it? We do so not to forge a negative cast of mind in young people, but to introduce them to the human condition, the drama, the travail of love and hate, and of exploitation and survival in history.”
The forum features rare images of enslaved people reimagined by artist Jennifer Davis Carey. “This series was inspired by daguerreotypes commissioned by Professor Louis Agassiz to prove his theory that Blacks were a separate and lesser creation,” Carey writes. “The originals pose enslaved people from the Taylor Plantation in South Carolina unclad, positioned like biological specimens. The altered images humanize the subjects by clothing them and inviting the viewer to consider their faces, attire, and demeanor, and to redefine their relationship to Renty, Delia, Jack, Drana, and Fassena, and to this chapter in our shared history.”
About the forum contributors. Danielle Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and a candidate for governor of Massachusetts; Daina Ramey Berry is the Oliver H. Radkey Regents Professor of History and chairperson of the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin; David W. Blight is the Sterling Professor of American History at Yale University who wrote the introductory essay for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2019 report Teaching Hard History: Slavery; Allen C. Guelzo is the director of the James Madison Program Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship and senior research scholar in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University; Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, who from 2015–20 served on the Fayetteville School Board; Ian V. Rowe is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; and, Adrienne Stang, is the director of Social Studies for Cambridge Public Schools (Massachusetts).
About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit educationnext.org.