Making Citizens: The Mission of the National Association of Scholars
During a National Association of Scholars webinar last week, historian Wilfred M. McClay had harsh words for the New York Times’s 1619 Project, calling its scholarship “poor” and “embarrassing” and noting that some of America’s most distinguished historians, including Gordon S. Wood, Sean Wilentz, James Oakes, and James McPherson, have publicly criticized its arguments.
McClay also pointed out that lead writer Nikole Hannah-Jones recently wrote that the 1619 Project is not “history” but rather “a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge” the current “national narrative.” Yet this work of journalism, with its attendant curriculum, has already been adopted in thousands of schools across the United States.
The 1619 Project presents America as a “slavocracy” that will always be defined by the “oppression of blacks,” says NAS president Peter Wood. To challenge this view, NAS is launching its own 1620 Project, a name chosen to highlight the year that the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact and established “the principles of self-government, liberty under the law, and mutual respect.” The 1620 Project provides “a broader picture of American history, one that is informed by a thorough and unbiased assessment of historical data.”
While Americans should “be mindful” of the country’s “terrible history” with regards to slavery, Wood and NAS argue that “being truly cognizant requires a commitment to accuracy and understanding of context”—especially in our present moment, where “wildly inaccurate and de-contextualized claims about slavery are widespread.”
Through videos, podcasts, conferences, a forthcoming book, and writing from scholars such as Lucas Morel, H.W. Brands, and William B. Allen, along with NAS’s Wood, David Randall, and John David, NAS hopes to push back “against the racial animosity fostered by the 1619 Project.”
The 1620 Project is part of NAS’s larger mission: to “uphold the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship.”
In order to achieve these goals, NAS aims to “reform higher education” by defending “academic freedom,” publishing in-depth investigative reports, and educating the public “about policies and legislation that would preserve the liberal arts and protect academic freedom.”
NAS seeks to provide solutions to the problems besetting American civic education, which Wood says “has been hijacked by the partisans of the social justice movement” who are attempting to move “in a direction away from our traditional, constitutional values.” Two reports, “Making Citizens” and “The Lost History of Western Civilization,” explore how college courses on American civics and Western Civilization have been gradually hollowed out since the 1960s in favor of political propaganda.
Wood argues that students today are taught to “disdain their country and to focus on its missteps and ignominy—whether real or imaginary.”
This trend would be a problem for any country, but it is especially so for America, where republican government depends on educated citizens who understand the traditions and principles of self-government. Numerous surveys, such as the 2019 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, which found that just 39% of American adults could identify the three branches of government, show how pervasive the problem has become.
Because citizens are made and not born, a solid civic education from teachers grounded in history is necessary for America’s continued success. “None of this knowledge comes instantly into the heads of children as they grow up. They have to be taught,” Wood says.
What can Americans do more broadly to reform civic education?
Wood argues that we shouldn’t rely on teachers and school administrators because “they are generally educated in schools of education, which feature some of the worst anti-American indoctrination in all of higher education.” Instead, parents and legislators should start by reading “current textbooks and supporting materials—an eye-opening experience” that will help shape their future strategies.
Those interested in reform can also become NAS members, which includes a subscription to the quarterly journal Academic Questions and access to a network of individuals working to promote academic integrity and intellectual freedom in higher education.
Though the demands of republican self-government are high, Peter Wood and the National Association of Scholars understand that the American future depends on it—and, in turn, on the task of forming citizens who can pass on the blessings of liberty to their progeny.