Five years ago, the 1619 Project opened a new battle over how our children learn U.S. history. It caused quite a stir, but the biggest problem with 1619 isn’t new. The ideas at the heart of the American founding—equality, natural rights, the consent of the governed—have long been missing from our textbooks and classrooms. These ideas are essential to defining America, so it may be no surprise that in 2023 just 18% of respondents 18-34 told Gallup that they were "extremely proud" to be American—the lowest proportion yet.

We recently assessed the place of ideas in U.S. history classrooms in the journal National Affairs. What began as a modest pile of A.P. U.S. History books on the office floor eventually demanded its own shelving system. Those books, many with the names of students handwritten on the inside cover, revealed the gradual disappearance of our founding principles from history’s pages.

America’s History ranks among the leading textbooks for Advanced Placement U.S. History, a rite of passage taken by half a million young Americans each year. The book is a backpack-bending doorstop, but it covers the Declaration of Independence in a very efficient 345 words. This is an 1,100-page book with 90 “Special Features” on topics such as the Haitian Revolution and “Dance and Social Identity in Antebellum America.” Yet it never mentions the Gettysburg Address at all. Students can presumably read it at the Lincoln Memorial—if they bother to visit, for why would they think Lincoln was a big deal?

The American Pageant, another top U.S. history text, also has a very brief treatment of the Declaration, and ends by noting that “Jefferson owned many slaves, and his affirmation that ‘all men are created equal’ was to haunt him and his fellow citizens for generations.” The use of quotation marks helps to distance the textbook’s Harvard- and Stanford-based authors from the idea that we are created—or perhaps that we are equal. The Federalist Papers get half a paragraph, though Charles Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States gets a whole one.

American children do learn about some ideas, however. U.S. history books always discuss transcendentalism. Most also cover the Beat Generation, whose ideas “glorified spontaneity, sexual adventurism, drug use, and spirituality,” as one text puts it.

This problem can’t be assessed entirely by looking at history books. In practice, today’s students seem to get their American history from Crash Course U.S. History, a YouTube series with over 50 million views. Crash Course’s thirteen-minute video on the founding era is thirteen times longer than the average TikTok video—so by contemporary standards, it’s a deep dive.

For time-pressed readers, here’s the tl;dr: the Constitutional Convention happened because “When rich people feel like something has to be done, something is usually done.” The framers had no new ideas; they pulled federalism, bicameralism, and separation of powers off the shelf and snapped them into a form of government. The Federalists espoused ideas that no longer apply, the Second Amendment is a relic from a bygone era, and the other provisions of the Constitution are . . . complicated.

With that, the American student knows as much as she will ever know about the American founding. Then it’s back to TikTok.

It’s not just the founding era that suffers. With our animating ideas removed, every period of American history is rendered in papier-mâché. Take the civil rights era. America’s Pageant introduces Martin Luther King, Jr. as “a skilled speaker” with a “devotion to the nonviolent principles of India’s Mohandas Gandhi.” King’s Christian faith is never discussed, nor is his influential “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This a stunning omission, but King's relentless language of faith and American ideals is presumably just too much to take. If King’s masterpiece were in a typical history curriculum, young Americans might encounter the issues taken up by the 1619 Project in a rather different way:

The goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. . . . We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. 

King does what the 1619 Project refuses to do: elevates the principles of the American founding as the standard against which to judge ourselves and our history. Indeed, King had confidence that those principles would prevail. But they can only prevail if we teach them.

Note from the Editor: The Federalist Society takes no positions on particular legal and public policy matters. Any expressions of opinion are those of the author. We welcome responses to the views presented here. To join the debate, please email us at [email protected].