“Many Students Are Now Taught in School to Hate Their Own Country”Roundup
tags: teaching history, 1776 commission
Jonathan Wilson holds a PhD in US Intellectual history and researches the idea of US nationhood in antebellum urban culture.
I have been reluctant to comment on the “1776 Report.”
If you aren’t familiar with it, this is a document that Donald Trump’s White House published early this week. Signed by the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission—a panel Trump created to promote “patriotic education,” which was given its name in direct criticism of the New York Times’s “1619 Project”—it drew predictable outrage from academic historians.
I wasn’t sure I had anything useful to add to the conversation about it, especially considering that Joe Biden took office only two days later, rendering the “1776 Report” a dead letter. Biden disbanded the 1776 Commission on Wednesday afternoon with his first executive order. (The “1776 Report” was archived as a matter of routine when the new administration took office. It is available in the National Archives’ copy of the Trump presidential website.)
However, some conservative activists seem to be rallying around the “1776 Report” even now. And historians’ responses to the text are unlikely to persuade most American conservatives that anything is wrong with it. In any case, the controversy isn’t really about United States history as such. (I mean, it is, but that’s not why it matters.)
Fundamentally, the “1776 Report” is about America’s history teachers and how they do their work.
When Donald Trump signed the executive order creating the 1776 Commission, he asserted that “many students are now taught in school to hate their own country.” That incendiary statement is the heart of the controversy over the “1776 Report.”
I do have some things to say about that.
On a reasonably objective reading, there are three fundamental problems with the way the 1776 Commission went about its work, plus a major problem with its claims about what American students learn in school. Let me describe these problems one by one.
1. The “1776 Report” is not a report.
Let’s start with the basics. The “1776 Report” is twenty pages long, with another twenty pages of appendices. Some of the text is copied from things the authors previously published. Despite the name, it is not a report. In other words, it does not present any research on the current state of American education or society. No information is being reported.
2. The practical recommendations in the “1776 Report” show little awareness of actual educational environments.
If the 1776 Commission’s work is going to shape the work of American school supervisors, curriculum designers, and teachers, it should present recommendations that demonstrate some familiarity with the actual processes and practical challenges of history education.
After all, as the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott pointed out, knowing a set of ideas intellectually is not the same thing as being able to teach them to students as part of a way of life. It is one thing for the “1776 Report” to make statements about American history; it is another thing to give advice for actually teaching it.
Unfortunately, the “1776 Report” shows very little evidence that its authors are familiar with history classrooms—at any educational level.
3. The 1776 Commission did not include anyone with relevant experience in U.S. history education.
The commission had sixteen regular members, plus several ex officio members from the Trump administration. As many academic critics have pointed out, none of these people are historians of the United States. Broadly speaking, instead, the scholars on the commission work on government or law. (Only two, Larry Arnn and Victor Davis Hanson, can plausibly be called historians at all, notwithstanding the White House’s claim that the commission included “some of America’s most distinguished scholars and historians.”) Most commission members are simply career conservative activists.
4. The “1776 Report” leaps to a conclusion about what actual students think.
The three problems I’ve already identified make “1776 Report” unreliable. But there’s an even more important problem with its claims about America’s education system.
Here’s the thing: Even if the “1776 Report” expressed a true view of American history, and even if America’s historians and history teachers were expressing an unfair view of the American past, that still would do absolutely nothing to substantiate what Donald Trump claimed when he created the commission: that “many students are now taught in school to hate their own country.” Or, in the words of the document itself, that our schools “breed contempt for America’s heritage” (34), or that students are “learning to hate one’s country or the world” (37).
Those are empirical claims. If they were true, it would be entirely possible to conduct research—or cite existing research—to prove them, showing what students in American schools or universities think about their country. (It would also be possible to do this for what their teachers think, too.) But the “1776 Report” never makes any attempt, not one, to substantiate its claims about what our teaching leads our students to think or feel.
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