1776 vs. 1619: Hillsdale College Enters the History WarsHistorians in the News
tags: curriculum, school choice, culture war, Hillsdale College, teaching history, 1619 Project, critical race theory
Adam Hochschild’s latest book, American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis, was published in October. (November 2022)
The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum
3,268 pp., available at k12.hillsdale.edu/Curriculum/The-Hillsdale-1776-Curriculum/Access/
The 1619 Project
a six-part Hulu documentary series hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones
Americans have often been politically divided, never more so than during the Civil War, in which we managed to kill more than 600,000 of each other. But have the divisions over how we recount our history ever been so deep? Following the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country in 2020, at least four states, three of them in New England, have required Black history to be part of school curriculums; seven more have established new courses on Native American or Asian American history. Meanwhile Florida governor Ron DeSantis has gotten far more attention for forbidding the state’s high schools from offering the Advanced Placement course in African American history, which he criticized as “woke” and “indoctrination”—a ban that stood even after the College Board timidly watered down the course’s content.
The Florida legislature has passed the Stop WOKE Act, which forbids instruction that could make someone feel guilty or ashamed about past actions by “other members of the same race, color, sex or national origin.” Idaho has banned schools from claiming that any people “by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past.” Iowa now forbids teaching “that the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.” Other red states are rushing down the same path, seeing political gold in denunciations of shaming.
For all their thunder about how schools should not make us ashamed of our history, Republican politicians have said far less about what should be taught. But a fascinating, detailed picture of their dream educational agenda is there for the downloading from the website of Hillsdale College.
Hillsdale is a small Christian school in Michigan whose campus has a shooting range and statues of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It is known for its deeply conservative worldview, expressed in online courses that it claims 3.5 million students have taken; in a Washington outpost, the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, which hard-right activist Ginni Thomas helped establish; and in teacher-training seminars, a nationwide network of charter schools, and close ties with red-state governors and education departments. Florida, for example, offers a $3,000 bonus to schoolteachers who take a Hillsdale-designed civics training course. When President Donald Trump, furious at The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project and its portrayal of slavery as central to American history, appointed a 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic education,” its chair was Hillsdale’s longtime president, Larry Arnn. Other Hillsdale alumni were sprinkled throughout the Trump administration.
More recently, Hillsdale officials have been helping Governor DeSantis review textbooks and revise Florida’s school curriculum. When DeSantis appointed half a dozen new trustees of New College of Florida, the honors college of the state university system, whose reputation for liberalism exasperated him, one was a professor and dean from Hillsdale. These trustees ousted New College’s president, and DeSantis’s chief of staff said he hoped the campus would now become a “Hillsdale of the South.”
The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum—which covers American history, government, and civics for kindergarten through high school—is a vast effort to prove that we have nothing to be ashamed of. It totals 3,268 pages at this writing and may be longer by the time you read this, because its creators have been adding new material. It does not take the place of textbooks—although it suggests which to use, repeatedly recommending one by a Hillsdale professor—but it provides teachers with quiz and exam questions, historical documents, and guidelines for what to discuss with their students. (There’s also a separate Hillsdale science curriculum. More about that another day.)
The 1776 Curriculum starts from the premise that “America is an exceptionally good country” and continues in that spirit. George Washington looms large, and we hear about him and the cherry tree, although this is acknowledged to be a “legend.” Kindergarten through second-grade students should be encouraged to learn by heart some of Washington’s “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” such as “Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof.” (Rupert Murdoch, too, might do well to learn this one by heart.) Teachers are urged to “conduct a round robin reading of the poem ‘Paul Revere’s Ride.’ Then discuss it with students and begin to have them learn parts of the poem by heart. Plan two days for each student to recite their parts aloud.” When they get to the American Revolution, they should ask students, “How did George Washington inspire his soldiers at Valley Forge?”