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Editorial: Leave history to the historians
Editorial

Editorial: Leave history to the historians

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1619 Project Red States

In this Aug. 24, 2019 file photo, Jerome Jones explores inside the Fort Monroe Visitor And Education Center during the First African Landing Commemorative Ceremony at Fort Monroe, Va. Officials observed the arrival of enslaved Africans 400 years earlier to what is now Virginia. Proposals in Arkansas, Iowa and Mississippi would prohibit schools from using a New York Times project that focused on slavery's legacy. (Jonathon Gruenke/The Daily Press via AP)

For some reason Skyler Wheeler thinks he knows what Quad-City kids should be taught.

Or, more appropriately, what they shouldn't be taught.

Wheeler is a Republican state representative from Orange City in northwest Iowa. He’s the one who is working on his pals in the legislature to try to stop local teachers from using the New York Times’ 1619 Project in their classrooms.

Last week, a subcommittee in the Iowa House passed a measure that would impose financial penalties on school districts if they dare oppose his view of American history. The bill also seeks to stop colleges from using the project.

The 1619 Project is a work of journalism that was produced by the New York Times and led by Waterloo native Nikole Hannah-Jones. The project "aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative."

The series was published a year and a half ago, and the newspaper also developed curriculum that could be used in the classroom.

Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary, and the project has been highly praised in some quarters. But it’s also been controversial. Conservatives and some historians have argued it is an inaccurate portrayal of U.S. history. And lately Republican legislators in several states are trying to stop kids from learning about it. Legislators in Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi and South Dakota have filed such bills in the last month, according to an article in USA Today.

This is wrong. We believe American students need to better understand the contributions Black Americans have made to this country. For much of our history, their vital role has been minimized or ignored.

We understand the controversy surrounding the project. It has its flaws, but we found wisdom in the words of Leslie M. Harris, a history professor at Northwestern University, who was a consultant on the project. Harris was critical of some aspects of the report but said overall it is a "much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past…."

This view resonates with us. History doesn't stand still. It is in constant need of reassessment.

Just as importantly, we think the people who are best equipped to decide whether to use the project, and how to use it, are professional educators, overseen by principals and local school boards that are responsive to their constituents — not self-interested politicians, most of whom don't live here.

In the year and a half since publication of the 1619 Project, some of us on this board have examined the work and followed the critique of it – and it has been fascinating. The project, as well as the commentary, has educated us about corners of our history we didn’t know existed or hadn’t adequately considered. And isn’t that the point? We would commend our readers to lose themselves in this topic, through the project and the critique. You won't regret it. And neither would your children.

Unfortunately, people like Skyler Wheeler and his pals at the Legislature want to make sure your children don’t get to hear this part of our history. Instead, Wheeler would seemingly rather you learn only the history he and the like-minded will sanction.

Much of the legislative debate over education this session has centered on the idea of "choice." Mostly, the belief that families ought to have the "choice" to take taxpayer money and use it to pay for private schools. But, apparently, this "choice" doesn’t extend to what your child is taught when it comes to American history. Instead, Skyler Wheeler and his pals believe they are the ones who get to make this choice for you and your child.

We agree there are basic standards all schools must adhere to, but politicians shouldn't be able to just pluck a book or article they don't like and wall it off from discussion — even if they do control the purse strings. To do so is not oversight; it's abuse.

The teaching of American history is fraught with complexity and, yes, controversy. Teaching it with fidelity to truth to a student body that is racially, ideologically and otherwise diverse, is a delicate task. It is one best left to well-trained educators who exercise judgment in how they use the resources at their disposal – not to politicians who are trying to impose their own ideological brand of history on every student in the state.

UPDATE: Iowa Rep. Skyler Wheeler has praised the 1776 Unites initiative, which is an alternative to the New York Times-created 1619 Project. This editorial has been updated to remove the passage that mistakenly said he praised the report of the 1776 Commission, which was appointed by President Trump as a separate alternative to the 1619 Project.

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