KEY POINTS

  • McConnell wants programs on a revisionist history of American's founding removed from school curriculum
  • The Senator Minority Leader argued that the 1619 Project aims to 're-orient' American history
  • The Department of Education has little role in deciding the curriculum adopted by American schools

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Friday sent a letter to the Education Department to abandon curriculum in American schools that focuses on telling a revisionist history of America’s founding. 

In the letter addressed to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, which was obtained by CNN, the senator argues that programs, such as The New York Times’ 1619 Project, have political agendas and aims to “re-orient” American history. 

The 1619 Project was launched by The New York Times in 2019 and focuses around August 1619, when a ship brought the first slaves to the United States, then a British colony. 

“In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully,” the 1619 Project reads. 

McConnel told Cardona that such programs reorient American history toward a politicized and divisive agenda. "We write to express grave concern with the Department's effort to reorient the bipartisan American History and Civics Education programs, including the Presidential and Congressional Academies for American History and Civics and the National Activities programs, away from their intended purposes toward a politicized and divisive agenda,” McConnell's letter read.

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz had circulated a letter objecting to the project soon after its publicaton, and the letter acquired four leading scholars — James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes — as its signatories. The 1619 Project also became a subject of controversy among conservatives, launching a debate over the country's history of slavery.

In his letter, McConnell cited that challenge to The Times' project. 

"One renowned historian called the project 'so wrong in so many ways.' Citing this debunked advocacy confirms that your Proposed Priorities would not focus on critical thinking or accurate history, but on spoon-feeding students a slanted story," he wrote in the letter.

The dispute was framed lucidly by The Atlantic in a December, 2019, article. "U.S. history is often taught and popularly understood through the eyes of its great men, who are seen as either heroic or tragic figures in a global struggle for human freedom," it wrote. "The 1619 Project ... sought to place 'the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.' Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America’s founding documents, the story of the country’s great men necessarily looks very different."

In his letter McConnell said: “This is a time to strengthen the teaching of civics and American history in our schools. Instead, your Proposed Priorities double down on divisive, radical, and historically-dubious buzzwords and propaganda. For example, your Proposed Priorities applaud the New York Times's "1619 Project." This campaign to "reframe the country's history, understanding 1619 as our true founding" has become infamous for putting ill-informed advocacy ahead of historical accuracy,” he added. 

The federal government has not instructed schools to incorporate the program into their curriculum. But under the Biden administration, state and local schools that use the tools like the 1619 Project are eligible to receive incentives from the Education Department. 

Secretary Cardona noted that the decisions over which programs to include in the curriculum are made by local districts and not the federal government. 

"The reality is that when we're discussing curriculum, the federal government doesn't really have a role in the curriculum development," he told CNN’s Ana Cabrera. 

The statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston in the harbour in Bristol, southwest England last June after beng toppled by anti-racism protesters The statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston in the harbour in Bristol, southwest England last June after beng toppled by anti-racism protesters Photo: AFP / Handout