The Ignorance of Our Outrage: Thoughts on The 1619 Project

I’ve been pondering—and cringing at—a high school memory provoked by the online chatter over the past few days about the imminent publication of “The 1619 Project” in this week’s New York Times Magazine.

I think it happened during my junior year, 1970–71, when an exchange student visited my English class. I don’t remember his name, but he was from South Africa, and our teacher asked him to explain a little about apartheid and how it worked.

“Apartheid”? We-—good (white) college prep students in an excellent suburban California school in a world still a few years away from the international divestment movement—had never heard the word before. We were even more baffled when the teacher and the exchange student between them managed to explain what apartheid was. How could that be, we asked? Even segregation in the American South was on its way out, so South Africa’s complicated racial categories seemed archaic, ridiculous, and outrageous.

My remembered outrage is what makes me cringe today. We had not earned our outrage. I learned the American public school system’s traditional mythologized version of American history: the Founding Fathers were uniformly wise and noble men who created a nearly perfect governing document in the Constitution. And what little we learned of the Civil War involved a few battles between the Blue and the Gray, and a bit about how railroads and modern industrial production benefitted the Union side. About Reconstruction, we heard about carpetbaggers and scalawags who took advantage of and corrupted the new integrated state governments imposed by the victorious Union, and how that corruption and incompetence led to the end of Reconstruction and the restoration of more traditional Southern white-controlled governments.

There’s a slightly different memory, too, from sometime in junior high, of wondering how my civics textbook could point out the differences between the constitution of the U.S.S.R. and the less idealistic way the Soviet government really worked, and fail to note similar discrepancies between the ideals of our own founding documents and our government as it was and is.

Those occasional little glimmers of skepticism, though, never make much headway against our perpetual desire to believe the stories we white people tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s not enough for us to be the aspirational nation, the imperfect people always striving to live up to our ideals. We’d rather be the always-perfect nation, the people who already know best how to live and govern and show the rest of the world our shining example, even if it means we have to ignore most of the damage we have done becoming what we are.

I’m working my way through a long To Be Read list to remedy my ignorance—Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, David Blight’s Frederick Douglass, new U.S. histories like Jill LePore’s These Truths and Alan Taylor and Eric Foner’s American Colonies, Foner’s authoritative Reconstruction, Brenda Wineapple’s The Impeachers, David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, and countless more. The history is there, if we will only look.

I’m astonished, yet not at all surprised by some of the reaction to The 1619 Project. The New York Times is stoking racist animus in order to sell more papers. Or bringing to light the less admirable parts of our past (and present) is unpatriotic and only damages our standing in the world. But just like Nikole Hannah-Jones in her inspring opening essay, I believe wholeheartedly in that aspirational nation, the one we can all work to make more perfect, the better nation we can create—if we have the clear sight and wholehearted courage to see what we have done to become who we are. Only by recognizing and acknowledging all our people, all our flaws along with all our virtues, do we have a prayer of reaching toward those ideals we are so proud of.


NOTE: The Pulitzer Center’s collection of curricular resources for The 1619 Project includes a downloadable pdf of the NYT Magazine issue itself.

Too Dangerous to Support Children or the Disabled

Now this is just embarrassing (again—they did it to the one on the rights of children, too):

Senate Republicans Block Ratification Of U.N. Treaty On Rights For The Disabled, Citing Impact On Home-Schoolers

I can’t decide whether I’m more peeved at yet another incident to persuade the great American public that all homeschoolers are imbeciles or that there are enough Senate Republicans buying this idiocy to kill the treaty.

Only upside is maybe it’ll help us get a Senate supermajority in 2014.

Repost: See You Next Time? Someday?

(Originally posted on my Viral Learning blog 8/28/2009)

When my kids were little, they wanted to grow up to be LeVar Burton.

Actually, that’s not quite right. They didn’t want to BE LeVar Burton—they just wanted his job.

They weren’t alone, though. I wanted his job, too.

We all thought there couldn’t be any more fun or more interesting job in the world than to be the host of Reading Rainbow.

So it was a shock this morning when I woke to NPR telling me that today was the last broadcast of Reading Rainbow on PBS. The reporter said, “Even if you can’t remember a specific episode . . . ”

Even if you can’t remember a specific episode?

I can’t count the specific episodes I remember. I mentioned the puppy episode (Book: Best Friends; related segment: Guide Dog puppy raiser), the cat episode (Book: can’t remember; related segments: tigers at the then-MarineWorld/AfricaUSA and actor getting made up for Cats role), the one where Juila Child read the story about the mixed up real and artificial cakes, and the comedy show (Book: Ludlow Laughs, read by Phyllis Diller; related segments on slapstick) in the lament I sent this morning to my daughters (now in their 20s).

My older daughter wrote back:

And the hat one, with Zelda Rubenstein reading the book? And the here-are-all-sorts-of-different-jobs one, with the pizza guy and the dog walker and the professional LEGO builder? And the fashion one? AND THE STAR TREK ONE?!?!?!?! AND WOULD WE EVEN HAVE GONE TO **ANY** RENAISSANCE FAIRS WITHOUT THE RENAISSANCE FAIR ONE?!?!?!??!?!?!

Which, of course, made me think of more: Dinosaur Bob and Dinosaur National Monument; The Ox-Cart Man, read by Lorne Greene, with LeVar visiting Old Sturbridge Village (and because of which Kate and I went to Old Sturbridge Village when we went back east to visit potential colleges for her); the devastatingly affecting Vietnam Memorial episode with Maya Lin; Humphrey the Wayward Whale, which was fun because it used news footage from one of our local TV stations; Abiyoyo, with Pete Seeger; the one with the woman who decorated those amazing Ukrainian eggs; . . . I won’t go on, even though I could easily list a dozen more.

And why are we losing Reading Rainbow after 26 years? (Among PBS children’s shows, only Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers have had longer runs.) We’re losing it because nobody will fund it, because the powers-that-be have decided that “phonics and reading fundamentals”–the how of reading–are now more important than the why of reading, the joy of reading.

Reading Rainbow was never about telling kids that reading was good for them. It was all about showing them the doors that reading opens, the worlds we can reach and explore, the way one adventure leads to another, and more beyond.

No matter how much phonics and decoding skills are dressed up to make them appealing and entertaining, they’re still mechanical skills that kids are told are good for them. Reading’s important, and these are the skills needed to become a successful, serious person—in other words, learning to read’s a chore, and we have to try to make it fun, because otherwise it’d be too boring to bear.

Reading Rainbow always took the approach Frank Smith recommends in Joining the Literacy Club. Learning, Smith says,

is primarily a social rather than an individual accomplishment. We learn from other people, not so much though conscious emulation as by “joining the club” of people we see ourselves as being like, and by being helped to engage in their activities. Usually we are not even aware that we are learning.

and that

Literacy is more than the shunting of information between one person and another. It is the exploration of worlds of ideas and experience.

The NPR story says that Reading Rainbow operated on the idea that its kid viewers already had reading skills, but I’m not so sure about that. My kids were entranced by the show long before they learned to read, but they loved the storybooks on the show and they loved the related segments. We made countless library and book store trips in search of books we learned about from Reading Rainbow and looked into local versions of sites and activities we saw on the show.

Reading Rainbow never helped my kids learn to read, in this dreary modern phonics-and-reading-fundamentals sense. But it helped them in a more truly fundamental way–it helped them WANT to read, and without that, all the decoding skills in the world won’t create a reading child.