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 inaccurate and racially divisive.
Most of the more than 35,000 comments opposed the idea.
The Biden administration invited input last month on proposed grants to K-12 schools that focus on slavery and racism as the defining characteristic of the American experience. The curriculum is known as critical race theory.
Spurring outrage, in particular, was that the Biden administration wants schoolchildren to have more civics lessons along the lines of The New York Times’ “The 1619 Project.”
The project, which reframed U.S. history around slavery and racism, has become a flashpoint of political debate on racial justice, cancel culture and what American children are taught about their country.
“The 1619 Project” won a Pulitzer Prize last year, but historians criticize it for making inaccurate assertions. One of them is 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,” John Guess of Roland, Arkansas, wrote in his comment.
He echoed thousands of others 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,’” J. Robert Gallant of Maine wrote.
Mr. Gallant 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 nation’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 is 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, but the department received a greater volume of responses from a 2018 Trump administration proposal to raise the bar of proof for sexual assault complaints on college campuses. Most of the 124,000 comments expressed opposition to the idea.
The Trump administration’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, nevertheless finalized the rule.
Opponents of the grant program hope the outpouring of criticism this time will persuade Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to back down.
“They do count the comments,” said Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation. “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 Education Department attempted to downplay the idea that it will dictate what schools teach or that it will require the incorporation of “The 1619 Project” in American history curricula.
The department said in April that it 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 national seminar, said he wasn’t trying to impose a curriculum on schools. He said students of color are more likely to be 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 proposed a grant program on April 19 to encourage schools 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.”
To be eligible for the grants, schools 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 said it’s misleading to suggest that Mr. Cardona doesn’t want to pressure schools to change how they teach 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, is an unspecified period of reverse discrimination to smash entrenched White supremacist institutions.
Defenders of “The 1619 Project” say schools give an incomplete and whitewashed 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.”
Ms. Hannah-Jones contends that most American history classes leave out the role of slavery in creating the economic strength that allowed the Colonies to confront Britain. She said the real founding of America should be considered to be 1619, the year the Colonies first bought slaves from pirates.
In one of her most controversial assertions, Ms. Hannah-Jones said the Founding Fathers declared the Colonies’ independence from 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,” the National Education Association wrote. “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 that White students who learned about the history of racism in the U.S. had more positive views of Black Americans and engaged in less stereotyping.
The NEA declined to comment further when contacted by The Washington Times.
Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, also backs 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 that focuses only on the dark side and ignores the progress 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. They noted that women won the right to vote and the nation enacted 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,” the comment letter said. “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.”