The history of the United States of America, especially in recent years, has been a point of contention not just in academia among historians, but also in the political and cultural sphere. This debate escalated on September 17, 2020, at the National Archives Museum, President Donald Trump spoke during festivities related to Constitution Day and the White House Conference on American History. During his address, Trump railed against the “indoctrination” of young people to hold negative feelings towards the United States. He stated that “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.” He then blamed the protests and “rioting” on years of so-called indoctrination in the classroom, and called for the establishment of the 1776 Commission to promote a sanitized and hagiographic vision of the United States, one which is ahistorical, and is dangerous to the future of American education and the study of history.
Although Trump said nothing of what his national commission to promote patriotic education, or the 1776 Commission, would do if it is created, this move is no doubt the largest leap forward by his administration to seize control over history education in the United States of America. However, his comments in that address criticizing the 1619 Project and Howard Zinn indicates that it would effectively promote or even force a version of United States history to be taught in schools that completely erases the experiences of countless groups of Americans. Although the 1619 Project and Howard Zinn are used primarily as supplemental materials in the classroom to teach different perspectives of history, Trump and his administration have sought to erase their involvement in America’s schools. Republican members of Congress such as Senator Tom Cotton has even called for federal funding to be eliminated from schools that promote the 1619 Project as a supplementary source in the curriculum. There is no doubt that this 1776 Commission would go a step further, and attempt to erase the history that it would purport to defend.
These efforts mirror those seen in totalitarian countries in the last century to sanitize their history and are at best Orwellian in nature. Similar efforts were seen in Nazi Germany according to historian Louis L. Snyder, who stated that “The ultimate purpose of education was to fashion citizens conscious of the glory of country and filled with fanatical devotion to the national cause.” Teaching history in Nazi Germany was not about creating a generation of young people who understood critical thinking and the nuances and tragedies of a nation’s past but instead creating devotion, love, and loyalty, which are ahistorical. Other totalitarian regimes from the Soviet Union to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and others taught a sanitized history to glorify the nation and its leaders, to shed from the story of a nation its crimes and misdeeds, and to erase from it nuance and a reckoning with the past. In his clear attempts to do the very same thing with the 1776 Commission, Donald Trump’s motives are clear. It is to bring about the erasure of a critical understanding of the United States’ history.
This erasure of history by the 1776 Commission would in effect attempt to minimize how the American economy in its first century was built on chattel slavery, and that up until the 1960s, many people of color were unable to vote and were segregated in the South due to Jim Crow, and how we still live with the impact of systematic racism to this day in the United States. It would minimize or erase the genocide against the indigenous peoples of this continent, who were forced into reservations and destroyed their culture. Teaching history helps to link the people of the present to their past, and assists in understanding the issues they face today through proper context. This effort by the Trump administration to defund schools that include material such as the 1619 Project or authors such as Howard Zinn in the curriculum and to use the 1776 Commission to promote a warped and sanitized version of our history is at best negligence and at worst an attempt to denigrate that history he is claiming to protect.