We Don’t Need Donald Trump Teaching American History

He doesn’t know anything about it anyway.

Steve Jones
Sep 21, 2020 · 5 min read
Donald Trump proclaims Constitution Day, September 17, 2020. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

You know how there are two sides to every story? You know how some stories are so complex there are often many more than two sides?

When it comes to American history, Donald Trump wants you to know only one side — the one where wealthy White guys made the world safe for democracy and pried open a narrow window for other White guys to claw their way into the middle class. In that narrative, Native Americans, Blacks — whether slave or free, women, and immigrants get trampled underfoot.

Trump would balk at that. Call it “fake news.” But that’s essentially what MAGA is. A callback to a time when White males had it great and a few others might come along if they could negotiate the social and political obstacles strewn before them.

On Constitution Day , September 17, 2020, Donald Trump railed against what he called “left-wing indoctrination in our schools” that has “warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies.”

The “American story.” That’s American history, folks, and Trump has routinely over the past four years told us how little he knows about it.

In his Constitution Day speech, Trump decried the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which, he said, “rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.” And he slammed the late historian Howard Zinn as a writer of “propaganda tracts . . . that try to make students ashamed of their own history.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Zinn, he wrote the textbook A People’s History of the United States. Rather than simply tell the standard “great man” political history of the United States, Zinn offers the history of people who did not participate in the upper echelons of the historical sweep — indentured servants, blacks, women, and Native Americans, to name a few. Zinn’s is not “wrong” history, nor is it leftist propaganda. It complements the history that most students get. It’s the type of writing that helps you achieve a fuller understanding of the American story.

The 1619 Project does the same thing; it presents one of those “other sides” of the story. It stresses how slavery has underpinned the racism, inequalities, and segregation that have plagued the United States from the beginning. If you haven’t seen the 1619 Project, check it out.

There is no mistaking the project’s thesis. It begins with the arrival of a slave ship off the coast of Virginia in 1619. “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.” And there is no way around the fact that a free source of labor put many colonial businesses, not just plantations, on a profitable footing.

Several top historians of the early Federalist era have challenged the 1619 Project, citing some factual errors and a tendency to put an ideological emphasis before solid history. That’s fine; it’s called for.

I’ve said many times that no one writes history in a vacuum. Every author, producer, or project director brings a certain bias to their work. When a piece of work results in debate, you begin to get those “other sides” of the story.

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton hates the 1619 Project, and both he and Trump have suggested cutting funding to schools that use it. Gee, they don’t know much about federalism, either, as most school funding comes from states.

When a work of history is thrown out wholesale, no one benefits.

For example, in 1913 progressive historian Charles Beard published An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. His thesis was simple: the Founding Fathers had written the Constitution with more concern about protecting their business interests than protecting civil liberties.

By the 1960s, Beard’s thesis was largely rejected as too simplistic. Certainly, financial interests were a concern of the Founders, but so was creating a government that could withstand the various dangers they saw in the world. They may have been wealthy business owners, but they were also products of the Enlightenment. Again, there are many sides to the story.

But if Beard’s book had been rejected out of hand, whole new areas of Constitutional history would have gone unexplored.

Still, Trump thinks he has to make American history great again.

He wants to counter the 1619 Project with a history curriculum proffered by 1776 Unites. The group says its curriculum “maintains a special focus on stories that celebrate black excellence, reject victimhood culture, and showcase African-Americans who have prospered by embracing America’s founding ideals.”

Okay, fine. But I’m sure 1776 Unites doesn’t have the full story either. It needs discussion, criticism, and debate, just like the 1619 Project.

But seriously, how tone-deaf can these folks get? “Reject victimhood culture?” We’re talking about slavery, right? As in millions of people in chains. Of course, Tom Cotton said slavery was a necessary evil, and William Barr compared COVID mask wearing to slavery.

And instead of encouraging proper historical inquiry and critical thinking, Trump seems to want Americans to be “patriotic” and swallow the 1776 curriculum whole. “Our heroes will never be forgotten. Our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.”

So “left-wing indoctrination” is forbidden, but right-wing indoctrination is okay? Sounds kind of authoritarian to me.

Have you ever heard that thing about learning the lessons of history lest you repeat them? Exactly, but you can’t learn those lessons without as much information as you can get.

If the United States has a future as a democracy, we need to consider all parts of our past — the glorious and the wretched, the patriotic and the rebellious, the left and the right, the righteous and the ugly.

That’s the way we start to do better. That’s the way we move forward.

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Steve Jones

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We’ve got to do better than this, folks.

Politically Speaking

We all view the world through a unique lens. Politics is in literally everything from our churches to our social organizations to news events and crime to our governments. This is the place to share your view, regardless of your political leanings: all are welcome.

Steve Jones

Written by

We’ve got to do better than this, folks.

Politically Speaking

We all view the world through a unique lens. Politics is in literally everything from our churches to our social organizations to news events and crime to our governments. This is the place to share your view, regardless of your political leanings: all are welcome.

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