Jesse Hagopian on CBS News: Decries GOP Attacks on Teaching History

On May 6, 2021, Zinn Education Project team member and Rethinking Schools editor Jesse Hagopian spoke on CBS News about the rash of GOP bills being introduced to prohibit the honest teaching of history.

Lawmakers in at least 12 states are attempting to pass legislation denying teachers the right to be honest about the role of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and oppression throughout U.S. history. CBS News correspondent Tanya Rivero noted, “Conservative lawmakers are asking the Biden administration to abandon curriculum they say fabricates American history in schools.”

Hagopian was interviewed about the attacks on the 1619 Project, the Zinn Education, and Black Lives Matter at School. See the full segment below. (The interview with Jesse begins at 1:08 minutes.)

Hagopian began by responding to a question about the 1619 Project,

The 1619 Project is really about undoing master narratives that have erased the struggles and contributions of Black people to this country that are far too often whitewashed out of corporate textbooks. And it’s about acknowledging that for over 400 years, Black people have stood up to racism in an unrelenting Black freedom struggle. It’s about reframing this country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans, really at the heart of what our country is about. And there’s incredible essays and, and teaching materials that are used to deepen students’ understanding of our nation.

. . . And so you literally can’t tell the truth about the founding of this country and the long history of systemic racism without talking about these difficult truths. And I refuse as an educator to lie to my students and I know there are many more educators like me.

Hagopian announced that the Zinn Education Project is inviting teachers to sign a pledge stating that they refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events — regardless of the law.

The pledge states, “We the undersigned educators will not be bullied. We will continue our commitment to develop critical thinking that supports students to better understand problems in our society, and to develop collective solutions to those problems. We are for truth-telling and uplifting the power of organizing and solidarity that move us toward a more just society.” Read more and sign the pledge.

If you are not a teacher and want to lend your support, here are calls to action to defend the teaching of people’s history.

The full transcript of the interview is below.

CBS News Correspondent (Tanya Rivero)  00:00

Conservative lawmakers are asking the Biden administration to abandon curriculum they say fabricates American history in schools. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and 37 Republicans sent a letter to education secretary Miguel Cardona to recall a proposal to provide federal grants to states and local schools for using tools like the 1619 Project in classrooms. The project reframes American history beginning with 1619, the year the first slave ship arrived to America. The learning tool has ignited a fierce debate over the legacy of slavery and the treatment of African Americans. Senator McConnell argues Americans do not need or want their tax dollars diverted from promoting the principles that unite our nation toward promoting radical ideologies meant to divide us. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicole Hannah Jones collaborated with the New York Times to create the 1619 Project. She says the minority leader’s effort to censor her project is a freedom of speech issue. For more, I want to bring in Jesse Hagopian. He is an award-winning educator at Garfield High School in Seattle, and a curriculum writer with Zinn Education Project and Rethinking Schools. He’s also the co-editor of the new book, Black Lives Matter at School and Teaching for Black Lives. Jesse, thanks for joining us. Great to have you with us. So for our viewers who are not as familiar with it, can you share the history and essence of the 1619 Project?

Jesse Hagopian  01:41

Thanks for having me on the program today. And, you know, the 1619 Project is really about undoing master narratives that have erased the struggles and contributions of Black people to this country that are far too often whitewashed out of corporate textbooks. And it’s about acknowledging that for over 400 years, Black people have stood up to racism in an unrelenting Black freedom struggle. It’s about reframing this country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans really at the heart of what our country is about. And there’s incredible essays and teaching materials that are used to deepen students’ understanding of our nation.

CBS News Correspondent (Tanya Rivero) 02:33

And so how does then the 1619 Project and other similar learning tools such as your own books play a role in the American curriculum?

Jesse Hagopian  02:45

I think that it needs to play more and more of a role in the curriculum. I think that one of the greatest educators of our nation was actually the uprising that happened from the spring and summer in the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, you know, that really increased the number of teachers and inspired so many more educators to begin teaching for social justice. And I think that’s really what’s driving these bills across the country.

They wouldn’t be trying to ban the teaching of structural racism if there weren’t so many teachers interested in joining the struggle and the Black Lives Matter at School movement. And, you know, for all the work of these great social justice teachers around the country who would have guessed that it’s actually the Republican party that’s become the nation’s greatest teacher about racism.

Of course, the irony is that they are teaching a master class about how ingrained racism is in our society by passing racist legislation to ban the teaching of structural racism. And you have to look at a bill like in West Virginia where it states that they want to ban teaching that the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist. But if you look up the definition of fundamental in Merriam Webster it says, “Serving as an original or generating source.” And there is just an honest telling of our country cannot be done without talking about the systematic genocide against Native people and against Black people.

And so you literally can’t tell the truth about the founding of this country and the long history of systemic racism without talking about these difficult truths. And I refuse as an educator to lie to my students and I know there are many more educators like me.

CBS News Correspondent (Tanya Rivero) 04:55

And so when you hear you know, lawmakers like Mitch McConnell saying that teaching this in schools, you know, actually further divides us. What’s your response to that?

Jesse Hagopian  05:06

I think that Frederick Douglass talked about the role of racism in our country. And he said, they used racism. They divided both to conquer each, meaning that racism is a wedge used to pit groups against each other. And when we don’t understand each other, when we don’t know each other’s struggles, and where we came from, then we can’t build the type of empathy and solidarity that we need to achieve a better world. And so I think it’s actually these bills that are highly divisive, and aimed at dividing and conquering.

And I know that many educators are turning to the Zinn Education Project that I work for to look for lessons to teach the truth about this country. And we’re actually launching a petition today that’s a pledge for educators to sign saying that regardless of what the laws are passed banning the teaching about racism, that we will continue to teach these truths. And I know that many educators are going to sign this.

And it’s not just about teaching about oppression. We also want to teach about the long history of resistance to that oppression about how people have organized across race, across class, across gender to build a better society and to build social movements.

I think that, you know, in places like Arkansas where they went as far as banning solidarity in their bill, right, that they propose banning the teaching of solidarity. And I think that’s exactly what we want to build more of in our society.

CBS News Correspondent (Tanya Rivero)  06:57

Jesse Hagopian, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

Jesse Hagopian  07:01

Thanks so much.

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