The New York Times made news this summer with the 1619 Project, a series of essays and articles written with the goal of rewriting American history, using the year 1619 as the founding of our country, as that was when the first African slaves were brought to the New World.
According to The New York Times’ website, it intends “to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
Although many argue the 1619 Project is dangerous, the essays illustrate a larger cultural problem with today’s method of teaching history. We teach the history of our country and civilization with a focus on the evils that occurred throughout history, and fail to pass down the stories of daring deeds and praiseworthy actions.
As such, we have destroyed the beauty that is found in mankind’s history: the heroes of our past defending against evil.
While we should not only focus on mankind’s failures, there are still reasons to teach about the horrors of the past.
The story of World War II cannot be recounted without the Holocaust, the taming of the West cannot be studied without the Trail of Tears, and our own nation’s history cannot be truly understood without recounting slavery’s effect on our founding. But we mustn’t lose the good of our heritage in light of the bad. Such an attitude turns history into a mere study of dates and tragedy. We lose the truly noble efforts of those who have gone before us.
When I was in school, lessons on the Holocaust focused on the six million Jews in Europe that were rounded up and slaughtered by the Nazis. As a third grader, I remember my teacher showing us footage of the tortured and emaciated bodies of the Jews who were discovered in the concentration camps of Eastern Europe.
She said we needed to understand the horror of the time. And I agree. We need to see the footage to understand the nature of the evil in World War II. But we also need to learn about the noble heroes that ended the war as well.
When we learned about World War II, the atrocities like the Holocaust were described in graphic detail. The efforts to end the evils of the Axis powers weren’t so clearly painted. The dates of D‑Day were provided to us and quickly forgotten. No one spoke of the men who landed on those beaches, waded ashore, and died in the cold waters of the English Channel to stop one of the greatest evils the world has seen.
We never heard of the noble efforts of the Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in the place of another man, who had a wife and children, at Auschwitz. We never heard of Whitold Pilecki, the Polish captain who entered Auschwitz to retrieve information. The darkness had overcome the light.
The 1619 Project attempts to do the same by focusing on a history of darkness at the exclusion of the light.
Selecting 1619 as the start of our nation based solely on the importation of African slaves takes the focus off where it should be. Our nation is one that, as Abraham Lincoln stated in the Gettysburg Address, was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Great men and women of the past have attempted to embody this sentiment and we should teach their stories.
We must teach the stories of Washington crossing the Delaware, of Lincoln standing firm in the face of the evil of slavery, and of Rosa Parks and others opposing modern tyranny. By all means, educate on the bad, but not at the exclusion of the good.
Yes, we have failed. Yes, men and women suffered due to American hypocrisy — none more than the slaves. But for a country and culture to continue, they must hold up their heroes and principles as an ideal to strive toward.
We must instead teach history with the goal of instilling the virtues of the heroes of the past as a source of strength and encouragement, sacrificing neither the education of the good nor the ills of the past in our educational scheme.
C. S. Lewis once said, “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.”
The 1619 Project exemplifies our obsession with the evils of the past. The sins of the father have overcome the greatness of the son. We need to return to teaching about the heroes, so that one day when our children will meet cruel enemies, they might look back on the old, brave knights and draw the strength necessary to put an end to the evil of their times.
Andrew Simpson is a senior studying history.