OPINION: Trump’s patriotic education ignores hard truths of U.S. history

President creates 1776 Commission to counter what he calls left-wing leanings of 1619 Project

In a guest column. T. Jameson Brewer of the University of North Georgia and Robert Helfenbein of Mercer University discuss Donald Trump’s efforts to push “patriotic education” and a “pro-American curriculum.”

Brewer is an assistant professor of teacher education at the University of North Georgia. (He has written here about vouchers.) Helfenbein is associate dean for research and faculty affairs in the Tift College of Education at Mercer University.

By T. Jameson Brewer and Robert Helfenbein

While it may now seem like ancient news given President Trump’s diagnoses and questionable prognosis with COVID-19, it was just a matter of weeks ago that Trump pushed forward with two administrative efforts that, while serving as a self-pronounced “win” in the ongoing culture wars, may actually have lasting impacts on our society and U.S. schools.

As it stands, the Trump administration has moved forward with an Executive Order that effectively bans diversity training for federal workers and contractors, even threatening punishment, and a newly announced effort promoting a “patriotic education.”

Straw man arguments are popular because they’re hard to argue against, but it is certainly the case that President Trump’s recent declarations about anti-racism and education are made of straw -- they don’t resemble much of anything actually happening in schools or higher education.

According to press conferences, political rally speeches, and the right-wing author who claims to be the inspiration for Trump’s Executive order, critical race theory has infiltrated higher education and corporate America’s efforts at diversity and inclusion. In response, the president has both forbidden certain ideas in any program that receives federal funding and promised to support a K-12 curriculum that counters the so-called damaging perspective of the Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project.

University of Georgia North Georgia professor T. Jameson Brewer

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While it is far from clear on how legal or enforceable either of these efforts are given that the federal Department of Education is explicitly forbidden from “any direction, supervision, or control” over the curriculum of American schools, what is most interesting is how this goes completely against the Republican Party’s long-standing insistence on local control of schools.

The effort to further marginalize the voices of the historically marginalized by banning trainings on racial diversity relies on an explicit ignoring of history and facts. This willful ignorance that leads to efforts to paint the present with the falsehoods of meritocracy and racial equity are evident, also, in the attempt at rewriting what students learn in social studies classes. Specifically, the attempt to orient historical understandings through the lens that white Western men are the historical heroes to be lauded while the lived realities of the marginalized and oppressed should be ignored, downplayed, and characterized as indoctrination raises significant concerns about an ignoring of facts in favor of blind nationalism and, as some have pointed out, teeters on fascism.

Trump argued, “Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”

Robert Helfenbein is associate dean for research and faculty affairs in the Tift College of Education at Mercer University.

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For Trump, the inclusion of historical analysis of slavery, for example, is an attempt to indoctrinate students into liberalism since, as it seems, an examination of the realities of slavery is to be understood as partisan and exclusive to the left. Comparatively, an approach that starts first from the conception that the United States is exceptional and the most exceptional nation that has ever existed in the history of the world does not, for some reason, register as indoctrination.

It is important to note, here, that rejecting a critical and analytical approach to content (history or otherwise) was previously put forth by the Texas GOP noting, “we oppose the teaching of higher order thinking skills, critical thinking skills and similar programs…[which] have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

The suggestion that the United States is exceptional and without fault will likely perpetuate misunderstandings of historical events, a disposition that historical atrocities are “fake news,” and a developed orientation to the world that enacts characteristics of jingoism and xenophobia.

Anecdotally, there seems to be a broad belief among conservatives that schools no longer say the pledge or play the anthem, that the Constitution is not taught in social studies courses, and that students are taught to “hate” the United States. This is objectively untrue. This is the straw man argument again and it is important to point out here that while schools have, and still do, provide an opportunity each day for students to recite the pledge, that participation cannot be forced or encouraged. That is, if a student chooses not to stand at all, no teacher or administrator can inquire as to why such a decision was made nor can they motivate, shame, guilt, or coerce the student into participating in any way. They should not require the student to “stand out of respect but not recite the pledge” as is often what happens.

When we discuss this reality with our pre-service teacher candidates, we ask them to provide a guess as to when such guidance came about. Many of our students, regardless of how they identify politically themselves, often believe that this is a recent trend promulgated by liberal or progressive dispositions of Presidential administrations or Congress. Yet, it was the 1943 Barnette v. West Virginia Supreme Court decision that held that true patriotism cannot be forced and, accordingly, that “if there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

And while the Barnette decision applies to patriotic symbolic acts such as pledges and anthems, it should be understood to be at the heart of what makes Trump’s endorsement of nationalism to be taught in schools so problematic: we just don’t do that in the United States.

Connected to Trump’s push to eliminate diversity training is his 1776 Commission that seeks to serve as a response to the 1619 Project that helps students understand the central role of slavery in the founding of the United States. For Trump, and his base, discussing slavery is dredging up a “thing of the past” or a topic taken up only for the purpose of making white people look bad.

Yet, telling the truth - even when it is a difficult truth - is not indoctrination, it is honesty. Certainly, the heart of civics is that we discuss the hard truths of our history so we can make better decisions for our future. Are we really so fragile that we can’t handle the truth?

So, what follows? Both the prohibition of diversity training and the push for a patriotic education rest on the same foundation, one made of straw.

Both promote the notion that societal interactions, judicial regulations, and even how we discuss and teach history should start first from the conception that whiteness is the standard bearer for racial interactions and historical understandings.

Rather than understand history from a broad array of diverse perspectives, Trump insists that we must teach students from the perspective of the plantation owner who believed that he was justified. The push to eliminate racial sensitivity trainings and teach the multicultural reality of the United States in favor of a disposition which sees multiculturalism as a threat to white superiority.

Much is still unclear about the ability of the Trump administration to enact and enforce such educational policy prescriptions but what is clear is that both represent a shot over the bow that attempts to reorient society and schools in favor of reinforcing an old status quo. Much in the same way that Confederate statues were erected not immediately after the war but in the ensuing decades in response to progress in racial civil rights, these policies serve as a monument in time to which white fragility and nationalism felt as if it was threatened.

We are stronger than this and our students deserve social studies that aren’t afraid of the hard truths and uncomfortable history of our nation. Let’s teach our young people to actively participate in a vibrant and multicultural democracy and not bow down to straw men.