When it comes to history, or at least certain parts of it, the reality star incumbent in the White House wants us all to travel with him on a fanciful flight to Fantasyland.Donald Trump is pushing …
When it comes to history, or at least certain parts of it, the reality star incumbent in the White House wants us all to travel with him on a fanciful flight to Fantasyland.
Donald Trump is pushing back against those who would have us openly examine some of the darker chapters of American history by proposing a “pro-American” 1776 Commission to “restore patriotic education to our schools.”
The commission’s name is a direct pushback on the 1619 Project, a New York Times Sunday magazine endeavor from 2019 that takes a critical look at the role of slavery throughout American history by recasting the country’s timeline from the year slaves arrived in the colonies. The project has spawned a corresponding set of curriculum materials for any history teacher who would like to explore this perspective with his or her students.
The 1619 Project has garnered its fair share of criticism for placing slavery as the dominant central theme of 400 years of American history, including critiques from well-respected mainstream historians. However, I’m not aware of any who’ve “thrown the baby out with the bath water” – only a moron would suggest that students shouldn’t cast a critical eye on the role slavery has had on shaping issues of race down to the present day.
Never one to take criticism lightly, President Trump, who I’m sure read the 1619 Project in full before his pronouncement, wants a school curriculum that extols the virtues of “American exceptionalism,” and indeed, there is much that’s exceptional about the American experience that should be taught and celebrated. For all our warts, this is still a beautiful country with a remarkable place in world history.
But in Trump’s call for a 1776 Commission, he wants us all to dive headlong with him into that treasured 1942 family film “Bambi,” and to embrace wholeheartedly the wisdom of that clever little rabbit Thumper, who said “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Trumper, Thumper, they just go together, don’t they?
In the spirit of extolling one of the remarkable historic aspects of the American experience, I’m proposing a history lesson for the 1776 Commission on our exceptional electoral process, a system that despite its campaign negativity has long been an example for the world to follow.
Lesson one would start in 1788 with the new nation’s first quadrennial presidential election and the peaceful transition of power. While the subsequent 230 years are littered with tragic examples in other countries of military coups, dictatorships, and the like, where the power to choose their leaders has been wrested from the people, the United States has never followed suit. The transition from one president to another has always been peaceful and smooth.
President Ronald Reagan eloquently spoke about this at his first inauguration:
“To a few of us here today this is a solemn and most momentous occasion, and yet in the history of our nation it is a commonplace occurrence,” Reagan said. “The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”
Indeed. Reagan’s successor, George Herbert Walker Bush, provided a shining and exceptionally presidential example of this on the day he turned the reins of government to William Jefferson Clinton. In a note left for Clinton in the Oval Office, Bush said this:
“There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair,” he wrote. “I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
That’s history, and a lesson well worth learning.
There’s a second history lesson I would propose, too, and you don’t have to go very far back at all for it.
In 2015, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander was the primary driver of a significant re-write of No Child Left Behind, the bill that governed the federal government’s role in elementary and secondary education for 15 years. A Republican Congress passed it, and President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law that December.
A key portion of that bill should be studied by the current administration. It bans the federal government from establishing or requiring school curricula and prohibits the government from conditioning funding on the adoption of specific curricula favored by the federal government. Curriculum is the sole responsibility of states and localities. Period.
Trump’s obsession with pushing down a federal “pro-American” curriculum on schools while banning others is therefore illegal, un-American, and in light of the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech, likely un-Constitutional.
History and civics teachers in the U.S. have long touted the virtues of America and its storied history. But there’s also nothing wrong with teaching children about the nation’s shortcomings. A quote attributed to philosopher George Santayana, and not to Thumper, says it best: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. A full telling of American history, in all its glory and its shame, is the only true educational path to one day securing the miraculous promises of America for all.