Trump's Latest Executive Order is a Head Scratcher to HistoriansRoundup
tags: American Historical Association, 1776 commission
James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association. This article represents his observations as an individual historian, and not a statement by the AHA. Follow him on Twitter @JimGrossmanAHA.
In the midst of multiple national crises and a day before a close election, the president issued an executive order focusing on history. Even a historian scratches his head.
One thousand Americans are dying every day, while a White House insider declares fatalities have dropped to “almost nothing.” Hyperpartisanship, combined with a genuine aversion to federal activism in the public interest, paralyzes the only entity that can provide the leadership required to address a pandemic that has gripped public and private life for eight months. But fear not. The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission has arrived just in time to address the true emergency: children in need of a patriotic education.
We live amid three deadly pandemics. COVID-19 is acute and of recent vintage. Systemic racism is chronic, dating back centuries. Climate change is an emergency whose impact threatens to persist far into the future. What the three crises have in common is the current administration’s refusal to acknowledge their dangers, a disinclination to take seriously the knowledge and advice of experts and a disposition to distract rather than act.
Hence the new commission, which purports to address the true crisis: “many students are now taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but rather villains.… Failing to identify, challenge, and correct this distorted perspective could fray and ultimately erase the bonds that knit our country and culture together.” A dire outlook indeed. Once we have left COVID-19 in the rear view mirror, and closed our eyes to the implications of global warming (perhaps a few pesky fires here and there), our nation’s civil fabric will be torn apart by a curriculum that “obscures virtues, twists motives, ignores or distorts facts, and magnifies flaws, resulting in the truth being concealed and history disfigured.”
I’m a historian, not a psychologist, so I’ll set aside speculations about projection — whether the distortion of facts or concealment of truth — and focus on “history disfigured.” And what historians return to is the imperative of context, which no situation, past or present, can be understood without.
The “doctrine” to which the president referred is “critical race theory.” This is not the appropriate venue to debate its merits or to evaluate the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which stands in the background of the executive order and was severely castigated in a recent column on The Hill. There is no shortage of contentious publications and conversations among professional historians about concepts like critical race theory or arguments like those advanced in the 1619 Project. But neither constitutes “child abuse,” which is a serious crime.