Politicians Want Propaganda

The Toddler-in-Chief, who couldn’t pass a middle school social studies test, has been doing his usual bloviating, this time trying to fire up his equally historically challenged base as we see in this article. The Toddler, who is a phony patriot, say he wants to implement “patriotic education.” In other words, he claims he just wants our students to learn only things to make them feel good about our country and to think it is perfect in every way. In other words, he wants us to lie to our students. But being a phony patriot, he really doesn’t care. As the article tells us, “The move is largely political — a reaction to a growing push by some academics for schools to teach an American history that better acknowledges slavery and systemic racism.” Personally I think it’s even worse. The Toddler is making a cynical play to get votes. The Toddler, with over 20,000 documented lies in his term in office so far, also does what he always does and accuses others of doing what he does. He claims teachers are lying to students. The article tells us, “The president’s remarks reflect a growing outcry among Republicans against recent moves to tell a more evenhanded version of the nation’s history, including its early foundational reliance on slave labor and the longtime disenfranchisement of and systemic racism against racial minorities. In particular, Republicans have taken offense to The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘1619 Project,’ which detailed the country’s history from when the first enslaved Africans were brought to America’s shores. ‘Critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country,’ the president said Thursday. Trump said schools need to focus instead on ‘the legacy of 1776,’ when American Colonies declared independence from Great Britain. The newly formed committee, Trump said, will be called the ‘1776 Commission’ — a further dig at The Times‘ project.” That quote shows us there is a lack of understanding of the 1619 Project in various places, including the media. The 1619 Project is designed to ask what US history would look like IF we considered 1619 to be the foundational year of the United States.

This article tells us, “Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said Trump is failing his own test of history in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crisis, climate change, and ‘the most compelling call for racial justice in generations.’ ‘He stokes hatred and division rather than bringing this nation together to confront racism,’ Bates said. ‘History will not be kind to this president for these failures and more.’ ” The article concludes, “Critics mocked the idea of ‘patriotic education’ as near totalitarian. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, cited Russia president Vladimir Putin in tweeting: ‘Putin did the same years ago and now that’s what you get in Russia.’ Joanne B. Freeman, professor of History and American Studies at Yale University, said Trump wants a whitewash of the American past, but the nation’s true history involves ‘the bad as well as the good.’ ‘The study of history – the sincere, open, and serious study of history in all its complexity –  is dangerous and misleading only if you have something to hide,’ Freeman said. ‘And it’s impossible to understand ourselves as a nation, and to reckon with the roots and implications of our current moment, if we deny the uncomfortable parts of America’s past.’ ” Amen.

According to this article, “According to President Trump, American history has been hijacked. The way he tells it, a cabal of radical educators wielding Marxist ideologies like critical race theory and brandishing dog-eared copies of Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” have captured our schools and universities and are indoctrinating our children to believe that the U.S. is wicked, that Americans are racist and that our country was founded on oppression rather than freedom. The ‘rioting and mayhem’ in the streets, he says, is the direct result of decades of brainwashing by left-wing teachers bent on making Americans ‘lose confidence in who we are, where we came from and what we believe.’ But have no fear! Trump is going to reclaim our history from the radicals and the socialists, and fight against the ‘twisted web of lies’ that questions the ‘virtue of America’s heroes’ and the ‘nobility of the American character.’ He’s already issued an executive order to protect statues from ‘violent mobs incited by a radical fringe.’ Now, he said in a speech on Thursday, his administration is supporting the development of a “pro-American curriculum” designed to teach students ‘the magnificent truth about our country.’ This is vintage Trump. He loves spewing empty patriotic rhetoric. He loves fomenting division and resentment through the culture wars. And he loves portraying the world in the simplest, most reductive terms. But here’s the thing about history: It’s complicated. It’s nuanced. It’s a tangled web of competing interpretations, clashing facts, alternative perspectives. It is constantly being reconsidered, challenged and revised, and that’s as it should be. Trump’s notion that the United States is not evil but rather magnificent — and that those are the only two choices worth mentioning — is ludicrously simple-minded. The idea that we need to propagandize our children with a jingoistic ‘patriotic education’ is not only nonsensical, it’s dangerous.” Exactly.

Professor L. D. Burnett, a historian at the University of Texas, Dallas, has this essay. She writes, “From sea to shining sea, historians across the U.S. were doing shots of whiskey, mixing stiff cocktails, and binge-eating chocolate in the middle of the day on Thursday—not to celebrate any sudden interest of our fellow citizens in learning about the American past, but to fortify ourselves to watch the White House Conference on American History. This event—held on Sept. 17 in the great hall of the National Archives building and livestreamed via the White House YouTube channel—was, like all things Trump, part infomercial, part self-indulgent whining, part 1980s nostalgia, and 100 percent anti-intellectual. The same President who made up a Civil War battle in order to put a faux historical marker on his golf course, whose administration meddles with the CDC to alter or suppress information, and who still denies the truth of climate change, trotted out a panel of quasi-experts, along with two actual historians—and, inexplicably, Ben Carson—to advance two ideas simultaneously. The panel argued the case that American historians (besides them, of course) have abandoned the Enlightenment ideals of the Founding Fathers to engage in free inquiry. At the same time, they proposed that historians should stop examining the complexities of figures from the American past, and instead offer our nation’s children simple heroes they could unreservedly admire. These two ideas are fundamentally incompatible—a fact that didn’t seem to bother the panelists. We historians who are observing this regime rather than enabling it have long realized that  the Trumpian approach to history is a muddle of confused hagiography. But how did Trump find a panel of so-called experts to back him up? As a historian who writes about the field of history’s place in the culture wars of the 1980s, I watched this conference and saw one long exercise in log-rolling for the participants’ politically intertwined institutional commitments. They put their reputations as defenders of historical truth on the line for Trump’s sake, and in return they got to shill their publications, their think tanks, and their charter schools. All of the panelists, as it turns out, were there to promote the adoption of American intellectual historian William McClay’s recently published American history textbook, Land of Promise—including McClay himself, whose presence on the panel, along with that of Civil War historian Allen Guelzo of Princeton, served as a scholarly fig leaf to cover the naked polemicism of the event. Theodor Rebarber, a champion of charter schools and a critic of current K-12 approaches to history education, was there to argue that an entire curriculum based on McClay’s book, and funded from a grant from the NEH, should be adopted—if not mandated—in all American schools.”

Professor Burnett continues, “At least four panelists, including the lead discussant Larry Arnn, have connections to Hillsdale College, the alma mater of many a cultural conservative and a school proudly hewing to ‘the classical curriculum’ (as if there had ever been only one). And two of the panelists, historian Mary Grabar and political activist Peter Wood (not to be confused with the other Peter Wood, an actual historian), are both affiliated with privately-funded neoconservative organizations trying to mint their own academic legitimacy, Grabar with the Alexander Hamilton Institute and Wood with the National Association of Scholars. This connection with the NAS is one of the things that gave me 1980s flashbacks. The first meeting of the NAS, held in 1988 and covered by the Washington Post, featured speakers complaining (as the Post summarized it) that academe was ‘dominated by administrators and faculty drawn from the radical left of the 1960s’ and was committed to ‘a kind of curricular affirmative action.’ The main declared purpose of the NAS in 1988, and the stated purpose of both the NAS and the AHI now, is to champion the centrality of ‘Western Civilization’ as the bedrock of the college curriculum. In 1988, the NAS decried Stanford University’s decision to slightly revise its Western Culture reading list to include some works by minorities and women; today, if we can judge by their contributions to this benighted ‘history’ conference, privately-funded scholars of the NAS and the AHI are still championing ‘Western Civilization‘ and a Great Books curriculum at the college level, still decrying those 1960s radicals, and still complaining that historical inquiries that seek to understand the lives and experiences of Americans who were not elite white males amount to curricular affirmative action. At the White House event, Mary Grabar, of the Alexander Hamilton Institute, carried the old culture wars torch against ‘the Left’ on college campuses by railing against the popular (not scholarly!) A People’s History of the United States, written by Howard Zinn and first published in 1980. In this she joins such conservative thinkers as … Michael Kazin, a well-known Leftist historian. Like most American historians, Kazin doesn’t regard Zinn’s book as an adequate or particularly reliable account of America’s past—which is why most American historians don’t assign this work to their students, and why we find it so singularly bizarre to see the book used as a cudgel against our field. So while Grabar railed against a strawman textbook to score points against an imagined Left cabal, Peter Wood condemned historians’ commitment to uncovering, examining, and honestly representing a diversity of viewpoints and historical actors who contributed to the American past. In a remix of the greatest hits of the 1980s culture wars, Wood argued that foregrounding diversity was antithetical to valuing Western Civilization. Apparently, the great intellectual heritage upon which the fate of America depends is a singularly monotonous, monochromatic, and pathetically fragile strand of human experience that must be protected from exposure to new ideas, new questions, and new interlocutors. Sad! Indeed, several panelists condemned the commitment of contemporary historians to diversity among those who produce scholarly history, and our interest in pursuing and reading diverse inquiries about many more subjects than have ever before been considered in the practice of professional history, as the true enemies of historical knowledge. In a scene that would warm the heart of William F. Buckley, an undergraduate from the University of Virginia who is active in her campus chapter of the Buckley-founded group Young Americans for Freedom raised the specter of current historical inquiry as grievance culture focusing on historical wrongs rather than historical triumphs, averring that she thought everyone should study ‘Great Ideas, not Great Injustices.’ At the other end of the prestige ladder, Allen C. Guelzo, a Princeton historian, complained about the nefarious aims of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, focusing on the opening essay, and ignoring the substantive work of the historians who contributed to the project. That brings us to Ben Carson. Clearly, given the conference presenters’ stated annoyance at the idea of ‘diversity,’ he could not have been there simply to mix up this all-white panel of six men and two women. Carson’s role, as it turns out, was to add a soupçon of Christian dominionism to the thin intellectual gruel on offer. After hearing all the panelists present their brief papers and engage in a scripted Q&A, Carson, noting the august surroundings in which the conference was taking place, within sight of the original signed copy of the Constitution, said with great feeling, ‘I believe that’s a divinely inspired document, and something that need not be tampered with.’ ” It seems to me the Founders themselves “tampered with” the Constitution when they added the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments.

As Professor Burnett writes, “So much for lauding the Enlightenment view, which would favor reason over revelation. At this point, I am sure, those great American sons of the Enlightenment, those recently-invoked Founding Fathers —Thomas Jefferson, who took a pair of scissors to the Bible to cut out all the parts that he felt to be untrue; James Madison, who championed both a diversity of factions and interests as the surest guarantee of a robustly representative government and an amendment process so that the Constitution could be tampered with as often as might be necessary; Benjamin Franklin, who asserted that the public purse should not be dedicated to any particular religion but rather guarantee the free expression of all—rolled over in their graves. Finally, Trump himself disgraced the dais to deliver the Constitution Day keynote.  He lauded the Constitution in slightly less theological, though much more chilling, terms than had Ben Carson, calling that document ‘the fulfillment of a thousand years of Western Civilization.’ He namechecked the familiar villains of current right-wing grievance politics: Howard Zinn, cancel culture, protesters who pull down statues, the 1619 Project, and “far Left demonstrators [who] have chanted the words, ‘America was never great.’’ On he rambled, sounding sedated, slurring his speech, championing his plan for mandatory ‘Patriotic Education’—another chilling nod to the fascist regimes of the 1930s. And we historians who will not ever become mouthpieces or props for Trumpist propaganda, we whose professional ethos instead requires us to engage with the complexities of the American past honestly, fully, and fairly, poured ourselves another drink in the middle of yet another dark, dispiriting day.”

In this article, Professor Leslie Harris of Northwestern University and Professor Karin Wolf of William and Mary dissect the Toddler’s inane ravings about history. They write, “On Thursday, Donald Trump waded into a version of an argument that we’ve heard for decades. ‘The left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies,’ Trump said an event at the National Archives. He accused universities and schools of ‘[rewriting] American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.’ Trump’s immediate target was The 1619 Project of the New York Times, a collection of essays marking the first arrival of Africans in Virginia in 1619 and which sought to integrate slavery more deeply into the discussion of American history. The authors recently issued a school curriculum designed to promote more discussion in schools of slavery and its legacy of racism that continues to this day. A Times spokesperson, Danielle Rhoades Ha, defended the project, saying ‘it deepened many readers’ understanding of the nation’s past and forced an important conversation about the lingering effects of slavery, and its centrality to America’s story.’ This is the latest escalation of an argument that began the very moment the project was published in August 2019. Though it has been widely lauded, including by us, some historians and critics, including us, have taken issue with some of its claims. Conservative politicians have used The 1619 Project to open another front in the culture war that has long fixated on history. Both of us teach early American history and we still get asked who got it right and who got it wrong: Was the New York Times right or wrong to write that the Revolutionary War was motivated in part by a desire to protect slavery? Did slavery have a “foundational” role in the establishment of our nation? Did the Times’ eventual revision of its language about slavery and the Revolutionary War indicate that its work is fatally flawed? We think these are critical questions about what history is, and how we use it—but not perhaps for the reasons you might think. The 1619 Project’s focus on slavery and racism, including its assertion and then revision about slavery and the Revolution, highlights how history is always in the process of revision through new information and new perspectives. But that process flies in the face of common ideas about history, that it is static and certain. Criticisms of the project and misunderstanding about revision come from this basic misapprehension about how we know what we know about the past. Journalists and politicians are examples of two groups that are differently but equally susceptible to a desire for clarity and simplicity about the historical past. But the past is rarely clear and was never simple. We understand the motivation—in both cases they are eager for a usable past, a way of explaining in straightforward terms the context for the present.” Longtime readers of this blog will recall many times I’ve cautioned against believing politicians and journalists when it comes to historical subjects. Take them with a grain of salt.

The article continues, “That context, though, is almost always richer and deeper in ways it would be more useful to know and convey. This is particularly fraught when the subject is the American founding. In essence, what happened with the New York Times is an example of how anyone—including journalists and politicians—can step into the stream of historical knowledge without acknowledging that the stream is moving. American history—indeed, any history—is actively created as researchers learn new facts and gain new perspectives on the past. History is unfolding chronologically: We each experience this in our lives as time moves inexorably forward. There is a tension between experiencing history—time moving forward—and representing history—holding time still. But how we represent the past is also moving; it never stays still for long, and it never has. The other big stumbling block for some is when historical actors and situations seem contradictory to us. Although we tend to think of ‘slavery’ and ‘freedom’ as two separate ideologies and lived experiences, the Founding Fathers, and many others in North America, experienced both at the same time as intertwined features of their society. Today, we imagine that the Founding Fathers had the same conceptions of freedom and democracy that we value. But it is vital to acknowledge that over centuries our nation has developed very different definitions of those ‘foundational’ ideals. For example, not only did the founders exclude nonwhites and women from voting—they also excluded those white men who didn’t own property. This is very different from our current values about civic participation. To see how removed their reality was from ours, just imagine what the response would be if a politician suggested disenfranchising every renter, nursing home resident, college student or other adult who doesn’t own their residence. Which aspect of this past is more important depends on many things—not least, what is important to our nation today. Which aspect is highlighted may depend on which history, and whose stories, we are telling. So the stream of historical knowledge keeps moving, and the histories we are telling can be different at the same time. The moving stream of historical knowledge and contradictory historical realities may flummox a reporter aiming to fact-check the meaning of slavery to the founding generation, or a politician reaching for a straightforward assertion about American freedom. But the research process for history is just that—a process—and it’s strikingly similar to that for medicine and other fields. In today’s pandemic, we are witnessing in real time scientific research that experiments, gains critical knowledge, and discards wrongheaded or disproven beliefs and practices. We investigate, we propose ideas, we collaborate and share with colleagues and audiences, and we revise our thinking. Rethinking our assumptions is a productive, necessary part of inquiry and learning that leads to fuller understanding. This might take place in a single generation, or take a generation or two to emerge. And with new information, new methods, new perspectives from new researchers, those fuller answers might be fully revised again. Research is a process, for individual researchers, for communities of knowledge, and for nations. As in medicine, we are frustrated by the research process only when we are in urgent need of a solution. Certainly we can understand the urgency of correct knowledge about the coronavirus. But we are also in a moment of urgency about our history, given the racial and class disparities exposed by the pandemic and given police actions that have inflamed racial tensions and raised questions about the fairness of American society. If we are arguing over history now, it’s because we’re in urgent need of way to fix these problems, to cure these social diseases. The 1619 Project reflects new histories. The depth and extent of new research on slavery and the enslaved in early America has been one of the most important developments in the field. Just as we prefer medicine that reflects current research, at this time we should prefer history that reflects current research. This does not mean that histories written decades or even centuries earlier must be wrong—far from it. They may reflect deeply important views and information. We have seen how in biomedical research ideas about what at one point was considered old fashioned or wrong was in fact vitally important: who would have thought leeches, that caricature of pre-professional medicine, would make a comeback? We can both use knowledge and interpretations that stand the test of time, and be attentive to how much new information and insight we have gained.” The Toddler and his zombie followers will never understand all the nuances involved.

The professors tell us, “If our history is constantly evolving as we develop new understandings of the past, does it mean all claims about the past have equal integrity—or validity? No. Understanding the past requires evidence marshaled to a narrative (or argument, or interpretation). Not all evidence is equally germane, not all arguments about the past are equally persuasive. Understanding the process by which historians make them better equips us to assess them. Our current discussions around the founding of our nation seem to demand declarative statements and clear heroes or villains. If the United States was founded on the ideals of liberty then how important is the Founding Fathers’ complicity in slavery, Native genocide, gender hierarchy, and other forms of inequality? We have seen time and again how the ‘history wars’ undermine our ability to understand history. Historians have long been unsettling easy characterizations about the heroism of the founding generation—and we’re not done yet. This is not about patriotism or the lack thereof, and is not driven by a love or hate of country, although we would argue that we do our work in part because we believe it is of vital service to our nation. Rather, these views of the founding emerging from research simply reflect the complexity of history, historical decisions and moral judgments—then, and now. In order to address the complex society in which we live, we must understand the contradictory and imperfect beginnings that history reveals. That’s the only way to better prepare ourselves for civic engagement on the serious issues that confront us today.” That excellent article is fodder for all of us.

In this posting, Professor Michael Oberg of SUNY-Geneseo tells us, “In his comments at the close of the White House Conference on American History, a gathering that did not take place at the White House and that included few historians, President Donald Trump offered a chilling vision that is one more sign of the country’s steady advance towards despotism. Trump wanted to ‘preserve our glorious inheritance: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights,’ though nothing has threatened them so much as his administration. The Constitution, he said, ‘was the fulfillment of a thousand years of Western Civilization,’ and ‘no political document has done more to advance the human condition or propel the engine of progress.’ So he said. Only enemies of the American state would disagree with him. He denounced ‘a radical movement’ that ‘is attempting to demolish this treasured and precious inheritance.’ These enemies of the American people have demolished statutes of slaveholders, that they have engaged in protests and riots. ‘The left-wing cultural revolution’ visible everywhere, he said, ‘is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.’ He denounced Howard Zinn, whose forty-year old People’s History of the United States terrifies the right. Zinn has lived rent-free in the minds of think-tank denizens like panelist Mary Grabar for many, many years. Zinn, Trump said, wrote a ‘propaganda tract’ that tries ‘to make students ashamed of their own history.’ The 1619 Project, meanwhile, ‘rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principles of oppression, not freedom.’ Those pushing these views are disloyal. Trump said that. Like America’s enemies, they ‘want to see American weakened, derided, and totally diminished.’ Teaching ‘critical race theory’ to our children, he continued, ‘is a form of child abuse in the truest sense of those words.’ Thus ‘Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.’ These ideas are so dangerous, in other words, that they must be suppressed. They are poisonous and they must be rooted out and eliminated. Indeed, the President boasted of having ‘recently banned training in this prejudiced ideology from the federal government.’ We will reeducate those exposed to these subversive ideas. The panelists, mostly white men speaking at a panel organized by the President of the United States at the National Archives, played variations on this theme. There was absolutely nothing new here. They could have plugged in the National History Standards in the place of the 1619 Project, and it would have been a 1990s flashback, or ‘multiculturalism’ for 80’s Night. With no sense of irony these well-compensated denizens of Right Wing Think Tanks and ideologically-connected Colleges lamented their marginalization. And, one by one, they expressed their fear of ideas, taught by historians, that they know they cannot refute. It was a disgraceful affair, capped by the President signing an unconstitutional executive order establishing the ‘1776 Commission’ to indoctrinate American children with ‘patriotic’ values. Because he is afraid of them being indoctrinated. I know many friends who have laughed at this President’s many monstrosities, but we are not laughing any more. This is dangerous. It is no joke. When I hear how colonists wiped out close to 70% of the Indigenous population of the Americas and dispossessed them almost entirely, I do not believe that the country was founded on principles of liberty and equality. When I figure that more than 2/3 of the people who crossed the Atlantic to come to English America between 1630 and 1780 came in chains, liberty and freedom do not compute. When I remember that nearly 50% of enslaved children born in Virginia died before their fifth birthday, and that the United States abolished slavery only after a bloody Civil War and after our former imperial overlords in Great Britain, it does not seem to me that freedom and equality are cardinal American values, whatever we say about ourselves. When I realize that in the very same speech in which the President claimed the country was founded on such glorious principles he denounced those who want to take down monuments to white supremacy and congratulated himself on the punishments he has decreed through an unconstitutional executive order for those who damage them, all I see is hypocrisy and the emptiness of his arguments. I walk away from this still convinced that the widely held notion that this country was founded on principles of liberty and equality is the biggest lie in American history. We can hardly expect a country founded by those who enslaved millions to have done otherwise than to create a republic based on white supremacy. And when I hear so-called historians, like some of those gathered at the President’s Conference on American History, claim that the Revolution is unfinished, that we are still engaged in the work of crafting that ‘more perfect union,’ I am left unmoved. We have been at this for close to two-and-a-half centuries, I might point out. How much longer will it take for you to admit that our commitment to liberty and equality may be highly qualified at best? The biggest lie in American History has been challenged in all sorts of ways. Historians, like those involved in the 1619 Project, have done so. And so have so many of the young people protesting out in the street. The response of these ‘historians,’ for few of them actually had any training in history, is not to engage with the evidence or to present interpretations of their own rooted in primary source research. Rather, they challenge the patriotism of those who write these histories, and who question ‘these truths.’ You cannot possibly love the country if you believe these things, they say, and your thoughts are so dangerous that they must be suppressed.”

Professor Oberg concludes, “At one level, there is nothing new about any of this. History has always been political. I think of the debates chronicled in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream years ago. I remember reading of the treatment received by Charles Beard after he published his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Much of what Trump’s chosen panelists said about Howard Zinn’s People’s History and the 1619 Project was said about the National History Standards twenty-five years ago. History as academic discipline versus history as civic education and indoctrination; history as a scholarly pursuit versus a set of comforting myths we tell ourselves about our past; history as a method for studying change over time versus history as a dogma, the challenging of which is dangerous and subversive: it has all been done before. So the arguments presented at the White House Conference were all pretty familiar. I have been at this for a while, and I have followed the ‘History Wars’ over many years with great attention. I have seen this before. The notion that historians are unpatriotic, that they will destroy their students’ love of country, and that they are teaching kids to be ashamed of their nation’s past, has been repeated many, many times. But what strikes me as new, this time, is the stridency with which the President and the speakers at this conference cast their opponents not merely as historians with whom they disagree about the past but as enemies of the state. They advance a coward’s ideological purity that casts historians as dangerous subversives. The President likened them to child abusers, aligned with leftists, anarchists, and socialists. Oh, they are so frightened. And they will strike those who frighten them. This long ago ceased to be funny, and is one more reminder of how much is at stake in the coming election.”

According to this article, the Toddler wants to use money he extorted from Tik-Tok to fund his campaign to lie to America’s students. The article’s author understands the cynical nature of the Toddler’s actions here. The article concludes, “Trailing Joe Biden in polls ahead of his re-election, Trump has made explicit appeals to White voters, including repeated promises to keep low-income housing out of suburban areas.”

This article tells us, “In recent months, amid divisive debates over the role of race in the nation’s politics and culture, the president has sought to use debates about what children learn about American history to his political advantage. He’s called for schools to ‘teach American exceptionalism’ and said that schools are teaching students to ‘hate their own country.’ And Trump said during a campaign rally this month, ‘We will stop the radical indoctrination of our students and restore patriotic education to our schools. We will teach our children to love our country, honor our history, and always respect our great American flag.’ Earlier this month, he threatened to pull federal funding from schools that use the 1619 Project as a basis for classroom curriculum—however, Trump lacks the legal authority to do this. The Every Student Succeeds Act prohibits the federal government from endorsing or sanctioning schools for using a particular curriculum. On Thursday, the president also used his speech to announce that he would create the ‘1776 Commission’ that would be used to ‘promote patriotic education.’ He also announced that the National Endowment for the Humanities had awarded a grant to fund the creation of ‘a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.’ The White House’s Thursday event, which celebrated the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, also included a panel discussion that featured pointed criticisms of the 1619 Project, historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and other historical studies that panelists said were focused on a radical and misguided interpetation of America’s past. ‘Zinn’s book is full of the ideas that are inspiring riots this year,’ said Mary Grabar, a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute, referring to racial protests and unrests this summer. The architect of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, responded to the event with her own pointed observation about the White House’s panel of historians for Constitution Day: ‘The White House Conference on American History has not a single Black historian on it. Strange.’— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) September 17, 2020In a separate appearance Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stressed that it’s not the federal role to mandate specific classroom lessons about any specific topic, even as she raised up a curriculum created in response to the 1619 project. Speaking in an online discussion at the Reagan Institute Summit on Education, DeVos said she’s sometimes asked about a national civics curriculum in response to concerns that children aren’t learning about America’s history and its founding documents. ‘Curriculum is best left to the states and to local education agencies, but we can talk about curriculum that actually honors and respects our history and embraces all of the parts of our history and continues to build on that,’ DeVos told Ian Rowe, a resident fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. DeVos praised the 1776 Unites curriculum, which Rowe helped create. Rowe said it features ‘largely unknown African Americans, past and present, who embraced the ideals of free enterprise, faith, family, and hard work to be agents of their own uplift.’ The project’s website has essays criticizing the 1619 Project and ‘the cult of victimhood.’ ‘America is an exceptional country,’ DeVos said. ‘And we know this because there are millions of people the world around who want to come here, who want to be part of the American idea.’ But children often don’t learn an appreciation for ‘American exceptionalism,’ she said. She cited results from the 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress Geography, and U.S. History assessments for 8th graders, which found many students lacking in knowledge of concepts like the Bill of Rights and the significance of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.”

As we’ve seen before, complaints about students lacking various types of historical knowledge are not new. Our country has had those complaints for as long as we’ve had our country. Even the idea we should have “patriotic education” isn’t new. In this essay from 2015, American Historical Association Executive Director Professor James Grossman writes, “First, what history we teach can be addressed only after we have established why students should learn history. This is why the AHA’s ‘Tuning’ initiative entered its discussion of student learning outcomes only after a conversation about why students are in our classrooms in the first place—how history fits within the context of liberal education, and what the discipline contributes to that larger enterprise. Whether history education should be ‘patriotic’ (not to mention ‘more patriotic’) begins with reflection on the purpose of history education itself. The AHA has participated in conversations at both the K–12 and postsecondary levels that have generally moved in similar directions: the role of historical thinking and historical knowledge in preparing students for citizenship, career, and self-understanding. What can be more patriotic than building communities of informed, employed, active citizens confident in their ability to make decisions and interact effectively with others? Indeed, these are the characteristics that exceptionalists have clung to in their depictions of 17th-century New England towns. Professional historians have debunked that myth because the evidence points to greater complexity, but the point here is the durability of the ideal itself. We can probably all agree that a patriotic education should prepare students to participate in the kind of political culture idealized in mythic images of decorous and inclusive New England town meetings and raucous ‘Jacksonian democracy’ symbolized by the White House at Andrew Jackson’s inauguration. The challenge is to preserve the ideal while staying true to sources that describe hierarchical and exclusive New England communities, and Jackson’s commitment to slavery, expropriation of Indian land, and white male suffrage. Students can better appreciate and understand the ideal by learning both the context in which we have fallen short, and the dissenting voices that have insisted on different ways of thinking and acting. Though hardly the only discipline where such learning takes place, history is an ideal venue for the education of citizens. Our students learn about the relationship between structure, culture, and agency in the shaping and direction of change. They learn that imputations of inevitability need always be tempered by consideration of the contingency of human actions, even those with unintended consequences. They learn that history doesn’t just ‘happen.’ All fine and good, say the proponents of a different kind of patriotic preparation, one that celebrates the institutions within which all of this human agency takes place and the heroic figures whose agency stands at the center of the evolution of those institutions. But to celebrate change, we must appreciate its necessity: Neither democratic institutions nor individual great men and women emerged fully formed. They evolved. And one cannot comprehend that evolution without understanding its context. If students don’t study the hierarchical nature of New England towns and the worldviews of Virginia slaveholders, they can’t understand the ideological origins of the American Revolution. If they don’t learn about the actual dynamics of chattel slavery, the buying and selling of human beings, then Lincoln’s warning in his Second Inaugural that ‘every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ reads as mere rhetoric. I will continue to disagree with thoughtful colleagues who consider celebration and exceptionalism the cornerstones of a patriotic history education. But that disagreement is not over whether history education ought to be patriotic; it is about what constitutes patriotism in a nation founded on dissent and notable (even if not quite exceptional) for its deep and vibrant traditions of activism and debate from every corner of the country and the political spectrum.”

Professor Grossman is exactly right. He introduces a nuance the Toddler and his brainless zombie followers can never understand. They think “patriotic” means cheering for the country and completely ignoring any of its shortcomings. Frederick Douglass defined a true patriot as “he is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins. It is righteousness that exalteth a nation while sin is a reproach to any people.” The true patriot is the one who recognizes the sins of the country, calls out those sins, and works to correct them. The Toddler, being a phony patriot who when his country called him to serve got a doctor to give him a fake diagnosis of bone spurs because his daddy was the doctor’s landlord, has no clue what being a patriot really means. His brainless zombie followers are equally clueless.

2 comments

  1. I think you just set a world record for most strawmen in one post.

    1. When you want to pretend you know something, you should really learn what it is you’re trying to pretend you know.

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