Last April, the South Carolina legislature voted to require all high school and public college students to read America’s founding documents, including the Bill of Rights. Legislation introduced a short time later makes me wonder whether the duty of reading the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment, ought to also be imposed on our state’s politicians.
The First Amendment prohibits the government from taking away our “freedom of speech.” Yet H. 4343 would prohibit K-12 teachers from having their students read a book that has been on the bestseller list ever since it was published last November. I am talking about The 1619 Project, which contends that African Americans have played a much larger role in American history than most people realize.
This semester, students in my section of The Historian’s Craft, which is required for history majors at the University of South Carolina, are reading The 1619 Project. I had several motives for assigning it. One is that as a lover of the First Amendment, I feel a duty to expose my students to books that others wish to ban.
Another reason I chose The 1619 Project is that students always grow intellectually when they debate questions that begin with the word “Why.” We are less than a month into the new semester, but my class has already had several lively discussions about why politicians here in South Carolina and in several other states hate The 1619 Project so much that they want to violate students’ and teachers’ free speech rights by censoring it.
I also belong to a growing cohort of historians who contend that while history is all about the dates, as traditionalists believe, it is also about the debates. In history as in politics, the deeper you and I look into the same topic, the more we end up disagreeing. And that is not a bad thing. Like many young people, I found history boring - just lists of people and events to memorize - until in high school I finally took a class that got us debating big questions like why the American Revolution and Civil War broke out.