On Thursday, Constitution Day, Donald Trump announced something called the “1776 Commission.” Here is a taste of his speech:
Today, I am also pleased to announce that I will soon sign an Executive Order establishing a national commission to promote patriotic education. It will be called the “1776 Commission.” (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you. It will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and make plans to honor the 250th anniversary of our founding. Think of that — 250 years.
If you want to see what this “1776 Commission” will look like, watch the so-called “White House Conference on American History”:
I have written about the 1619 Project many times here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog. Read my posts here.
I have also written extensively about “revisionist history.”
I have also written about Howard Zinn.
As I and others have written, the 1619 project has many flaws, but what I witnessed in the above video is less about American history and more about an attempt to use the past to promote a political agenda. There is no nuance. There is no complexity. Or, as one senior historian wrote yesterday in a private e-mail, there is very little “on the one hand this, on the other hand that.”
I have a lot of respect for Allen Guelzo and Wilfred McClay. (I did not know McClay was moving from the University of Oklahoma to Hillsdale College until today). I agree with a lot of what they said in this session. There is a place for their view that the past should nourish civic identity and inspire patriotism. But this session makes it sound as if history is only about civic identity and inspiration. History is about the pursuit of truth, wherever it leads.
Recently I was talking to my dental hygienist about what her daughter was learning in her American history course. The hygienist was complaining that her daughter was learning that George Washington was a “bad person.” Another hygienist, who was in the next room eavesdropping, came into my room and said that her grandson was getting the same message in his history class. I told both of them that if their children’s teachers were telling them that George Washington was only “bad,” then they were not very good history teachers.
The next day, I was talking to a friend who lives in a very conservative part of the country. His kids were not learning anything about the fact that George Washington owned slaves, that many of the founders did not want the Constitution to abolish slavery, and that United States Indian policy was often immoral. Instead his kids were learning nothing but “God and country” patriotism. I told him that his kids had a bad history teacher.
There is also something deeply ironic about the defense of “patriotic” history as defined by this panel. When the primary focus of a history classroom is historical thinking, and not patriotism, kids learn the skills necessary to be good citizens and patriots.
Last night I watched the Netflix film The Social Dilemma. I am not going to elaborate on it here, but it is a film every American should watch. It is hard to watch The Social Dilemma and not walk away from the screen believing that we need to invest in the skills cultivated by the study of history and the larger humanities. We need to teach kids how to detect bias and how to see the world in terms of context, change over time, causality, complexity, and contingency. This is the only way they will understand what is fake and what is real as the endless content flows across their phone screens.
Social media and the proliferation of fake news may be the most existential threat to American democracy. While Trump and his team of historians worry about the 1619 Project, critical race theory, and patriotic education, our kids (and adults) are getting sucked into echo chambers and either don’t know how to get out, don’t want to get out, or have no idea they are even in one.
Meanwhile, Putin uses our addiction to these social media sites to undermine our elections. And large swaths of the country get their news and understanding of the world from a chat room god named Q.
In the end, the “White House Conference on American History” was a political stunt. Sadly, it looked like a sophisticated Trump rally.
The Trump administration believes that an attack on the 1619 Project, critical race theory, and what they claim to be “unpatriotic history” will help Trump win white evangelicals and other conservatives in November. I am really disappointed that Guelzo and McClay–both Christian historians– allowed themselves to be part of this political performance.
John Hope Franklin once called historians “the conscience of the nation.” This entire event is an example of what happens when historians get too cozy with political power.