The recent brouhaha over The 1619 Project epitomizes how an uncharitable cancel culture, right and left, both ruins careers and kills dialogue. To behave better, we should offer forgiveness, but also correct error.
Arkansas Arts Academy in Rogers fired history teacher Josh Depner for using public school computers (a legal no-no) to rudely attack state legislators proposing to ban The New York Times' controversial 1619 curriculum in public schools. The 1619 Project argues that the only thing unique about America is its history of slavery and racism.
Depner's communications to state legislators were both uncivil and inaccurate. Yet if we value teaching and learning, his school should rehire him, perhaps after docking a week's pay. Everyone makes mistakes. Depner erred, and apologized. If the teacher learned, the school should forgive.
More importantly, there are bigger issues at stake pitting cancel culture against freedom, issues defining what kind of people we want to be and what kind of education we want to have.
Depner's letter to state legislators was offensive, starting "Dear Fascist White Supremacists" -- not the professionalism we expect from teachers. One wonders if students who disagree with the teacher would feel welcome in the classroom. Educators should behave better than Donald Trump.
Depner's letter is very problematic, portraying anyone opposing The 1619 Project as a white racist. This would come as news to dozens of African American scholars who oppose it on factual grounds, including my collaborator Wilfred Reilly, and my former collaborator John McWhorter, who may be the smartest person I've ever met.
Depner also misunderstands academic freedom. Public school teachers are public employees, so they must implement whatever (often silly) curricula elected state legislators, governors, and school boards choose. I saw this process for five years while serving on school board, and did not always like it. Yet that is how our democracy works. While democratically elected officials in Arkansas considered banning The 1619 Project, democratically elected officials in Buffalo mandated it, mistakenly in my view.
Public university professors like me get a partial pass from political control for historical reasons which remain relevant today. As Keith Whittington details in "Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech," as the mission of higher education shifted in the early 20th century from imposing orthodoxy to seeking knowledge, colleges embraced free speech and tenure so professors could write works offending the powerful without facing dismissal. Professorial tenure allows me to do research and commentary critical of The New York Times' 1619 Project, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or even my university;s athletic program -- not that I would ever push it that far.
As I detail in "History, Heritage, and the Many Troubles with 1619," the curriculum itself should not be taught since it is riddled with factual errors -- perhaps since only four of its 31 contributors are historians, none of whom specialize in the U.S. founding.
Slavery in the New World long predated 1619, having been practiced in various forms by Native Americans. The first enslaved Africans (and first slave revolt) came to what are now U.S. shores not in 1619, but in 1526. Slavery did not pioneer modern business practices, but instead made the South an economic backwater.
Most importantly, the Revolutionary War was not fought to protect slavery, making The 1619 Project's foundational premise fake news. Slavery was nearly ubiquitous in the 1700s. It took Britain a half-century after the U.S. revolution to outlaw slavery in its colonies. The founders rejected repeated attempts to explicitly protect slavery in the U.S. Constitution. Many believed (mistakenly) that slavery would wither away after outlawing the importation of enslaved peoples. A historian and 1619 Project fact-checker complained that the project's instigator and lead author Nikole Hannah-Jones simply rejected inconvenient historical facts.
That makes it all the more important that Arkansas Arts Academy rehire Josh Depner. Unforgiving cancel cultures, both left and right, have made it dangerous for people to say what they really think. Depner bravely voiced views held by many. We can only convince educators of the inaccuracy of The 1619 Project and other false theories through free persuasion, not by bullying people into fearing for their jobs.
Be forgiving. Rehire Josh Depner, but also explain why some of his ideas are inaccurate. Real education requires no less.
Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and has worked in over 200 schools. These opinions are his alone.