Whose American History?

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President Trump signs an executive order to encourage a focus on liberty in public school history curricula.

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In a September speech about the state of U.S. history education, President Donald J. Trump remarked that “our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.”

To that end, President Trump signed Executive Order 13,958 on the day before the November election, directing the Secretary of Education to establish a “1776 Commission.” The commission is supposed to advise the President and executive agencies on how to make education in the United States more “patriotic.”

Aspects of the order stand in conflict with recent efforts to build curricula around the impact that slavery had on U.S. history.

In the introduction to his order, President Trump characterizes patriotic education as content that focuses on efforts to end slavery rather than the realities of slavery. He criticizes curricula that emphasize that many Americans, specifically enslaved people, were not free at the time of the nation’s founding. Although researchers argue that most public schools already disproportionately emphasize liberty in the study of the founding of the United States, the President’s order tasked the 1776 Commission with producing a report on how to teach America’s founding story with an emphasis on liberty rather than bondage.

If formed, the commission will also advise the President and executive agencies on how to promote American exceptionalism at national parks, monuments, and other historic locations.

In addition, the executive order requires three federal agencies—the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Department of State—to prioritize patriotic education when allocating federal resources. For example, the order instructs the State Department to consider patriotic education when it selects Fulbright Scholarship recipients.

The Trump Administration’s push for patriotic education appears to be in response to recent calls for racial justice. The Black Lives Matter movement has prompted some schools to adopt curricula that highlight the history of systemic racism in the United States.

One such curriculum, which President Trump has publicly admonished, is based off the New York Times Magazine’s ongoing 1619 Project. Jake Silverstein, the editor of the magazine, invites readers to “consider what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.”

1619 is the year that slave traders first brought African people to the original thirteen colonies that became the United States. Silverstein contends that slavery and its inherent racial hierarchy has impacted every aspect of the United States. According to Silverstein, slavery contributed to all of the things that make America exceptional—from its economy and popular music to its vast inequalities and “astonishing penchant for violence.”

The 1619 Project’s authors center the contributions of Black Americans in the development of American democracy. The project’s curriculum offers an alternative to traditional history curricula that often center the white experience and fail to teach the realities of slavery adequately.

Some historians, however, take issue with this alternative approach. Twelve Civil War historians penned a letter to Silverstein expressing concern over the project and its use in schools. The historians argue that the project takes a limited view of slavery because it focuses on slavery in the United States, even though other countries throughout history also enslaved people. They claim that it is reductive to insist that slavery has influenced all aspects of U.S. history and life.

In response, Silverstein, notes that the historians’ critiques are based on differences in historical interpretation rather than factual inaccuracies that warrant correction. Silverstein maintains that the project is factually accurate.

President Trump also takes issue with the 1619 Project’s focus on slavery. He fears that instructors who teach the significance of slavery to America’s founding are indoctrinating students to make them “ashamed of their own history.” He has implied that critically examining the pervasive role of racism in America’s past is divisive and fails to honor the “legacy of the American national experience.”

It is unclear from these statements, however, whose U.S. history and experience President Trump hopes to see reflected in a new national history curriculum. Could Black students feel ashamed after examining the role of slavery in the nation’s founding? Some teachers have reportedly expressed concern that discussing American chattel slavery in the classroom can make some students uncomfortable. Others argue that American history textbooks and curricula neglect to address adequately racial issues due to “omissions, downright errors, and specious interpretations.” Such rousing debate seems to indicate that it may be difficult to define a single American national experience for public school students to learn.

Following the victory of President-Elect Joe Biden and the failure of President Trump’s election result challenges, it seems likely that the next President will either ignore or revoke this executive order. But the conservative push for patriotic education is not new and is unlikely to end with President Trump’s term. U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) recently proposed a bill that would prohibit schools from using federal money to fund the 1619 Project curriculum.

These efforts may not change how history is taught in public schools. Although the federal government can encourage schools to teach certain ideas, it cannot require schools to teach its desired content. The Every Student Succeeds Act prohibits the federal government from mandating, directing, or conditioning funds on the adoption certain curricula.

The National Council for the Social Studies, the largest professional association dedicated to social studies education, insists that the federal government should not attempt to interfere with school curricula. The association urges schools to continue using resources, such as the 1619 Project, that by its measure, accurately depict the role of slavery in the United States.

What exactly does it mean to love America? It seems that, in President Trump’s view, loving America requires students to learn history through a lens of American exceptionalism—the notion that the United States is uniquely free and ripe with opportunity for all.

But as Joanne Freeman, a historian specializing in American politics and culture, noted in response to President Trump’s push for patriotic education: “the only way to truly know and love a nation is to embrace it in all its complexity, including its sins as well as its virtues, and work for a better future.”