By Aaron Strain / Opinion Editor
Last Thursday, President Trump announced the establishment of a commission to “promote patriotic education” and debunk “twisted lies” taught in American classrooms.
Conservatives hailed this as “an overdue effort” to combat the “leftist agitprop” pushed by “anti-American” educators.
Trump’s attempt to create a Common Core of Jingoism is, hypocritically, state-sanctioned political correctness and big government overreach in local school districts. Even if the commission’s goals fail due to its illegitimacy, Trump’s supposed culture-war battle against tweed-jacket-wearing history professors will rile up his base of self-victimized conservatives anyway.
“The 1776 Commission,” the name of this intellectual pursuit, is a shallow dig at the New York Times’ 1619 Project – a series of essays which aim “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
After its publishing, conservative outrage mobs called the series “revisionist history” because it claimed the preservation of slavery was the leading cause of the Revolutionary War.
The 1619 Project does overstate this claim, and its director rightfully plans to amend it in the book edition. However, its overarching theme that slavery and African American activism were central to the country’s success and what exists of its social justice is wrongfully left out of our shared understanding of history.
All historic theories should be viewed critically, and Trump’s singular “pro-American curriculum” is dangerous to the future of critical thinking itself. Students need to have the ability to process information for themselves and form informed opinions, not just regurgitate information like a Google search result.
History can be interpretive, or based upon what facts an author highlights and what they omit. Truly understanding history comes from analyzing the different interpretations of figures, movements and periods of history, understanding the author’s motivations, and forming a synthesized conclusion.
Most introductory U.S. government and history classes analyze Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 “Frontier Thesis,” which posits that American democracy grew through conquering “the meeting point between savagery and civilization:” the frontier.
Usually, a student quickly critiques its white-centric perspective, which overlooks the genocide of Native Americans necessary for Manifest Destiny. Studying and debating these broad theories makes college courses interesting, engaging and vital for understanding the world.
I prefer the late historian Howard Zinn’s approach. Zinn argued that American history is viewed near-exclusively through the lens of supposed society-driving institutions, controlled by the powerful, and told through simplistic narratives of single, great heroes void of context.
Alternatively, he believed in educating through the narratives of collective, ordinary people who fought to overcome these institutional forces. Societal progress in America came about through the struggles for justice by the people, not the powerful’s altruism.
Although Trump has undoubtedly never read it, his description of Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” as a “propaganda tract” is honestly refreshing. Zinn would have loved hearing that his important work is still angering profiteers of public miseducation.
As Matt Damon said in “Good Will Hunting,” “If you want to read a real history book, read (“A People’s History”), that book will f—ing knock you on your ass.”
What I’m trying to say is this – reading Zinn, the “1619 Project” or any interpretation of history that doesn’t toe the line of American Exceptionalism makes Trump personally mad at you.
And if that isn’t a good enough reason to study history, I don’t know what is.