Americans are, as I’ve noted before, appallingly ignorant of their own history and institutions. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni found in a survey of college graduates that less than 20 percent could accurately identify in a multiple-choice survey the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. One-third did not know that Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the New Deal, and nearly half could not correctly identify the term lengths of senators and representatives.
No one exemplifies this dangerous ignorance more than President Trump. He reportedly had no idea what happened at Pearl Harbor, and he has said that there were airports during the War of Independence; that Andrew Jackson was “really angry” about the Civil War, which occurred 16 years after his death; and that Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more.”
Even more worryingly, Trump seems unaware of the rule of law or the separation of powers — the bedrocks upon which our constitutional republic is built. “I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” he said, which would certainly come as news to the Founders.
So in theory it’s a not a bad thing that Trump unveiled an initiative last week to reinvigorate civics education. The president himself would be a prime beneficiary of any such schooling. But, of course, what Trump announced is not a serious educational undertaking — something that is badly needed. His speech Thursday at the National Archives was simply the latest salvo in his campaign to try to convince his White supporters that the country they love will be destroyed by a pack of anarchists and radicals led, improbably enough, by Joe Biden.
“The left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies,” said a president not known for his own fidelity to the truth. He pointedly named his project the 1776 Commission, to distinguish it from the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series, the 1619 Project, which he said “rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.”
Trump isn’t wrong to criticize the 1619 Project. It has come under fire from distinguished historians (nary a conservative among them) for mistakenly claiming that support for slavery was a principal cause of the American Revolution. Even one of the historians consulted by the Times warned its fact-checkers that the “the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war,” but her correction was ignored.
More broadly, the Times overhyped its work by saying that 1619 was “our true founding,” and that the arrival of 20 enslaved Africans was “the moment” that America “began.” This is untrue on multiple levels — not least because, as historian Nell Irvin Painter wrote, the Africans who arrived in 1619 were not actually slaves but indentured servants, like many Europeans. The institution of racialized slavery did not develop until decades later. The Times itself has implicitly acknowledged the validity of some of these criticisms by quietly removing from its website claims about 1619 being the starting point of U.S. history.
But the 1619 Project, if shorn of inaccuracies, plays a useful role in correcting an earlier version of “patriotic” U.S. history that Trump seems eager to revive. This was the triumphalist narrative crafted by White historians who played down the crimes committed against African Americans, Native Americans and other people of color. This older history also promoted pernicious Southern myths about the glories of the “Lost Cause” and the evils of Reconstruction and largely ignored the experiences of women and minorities. Trump is an inveterate racist who denies that “White privilege” exists, embraces nationalism and seeks to protect the monuments of traitors who waged war on the United States to preserve slavery. He wants schools to ratify his own prejudices, not to teach what actually happened.
What we need is a new national narrative, as Harvard University historian Jill Lepore has argued, that rejects the extremes of both left and right. It is possible to find a middle ground that fully acknowledges the sins of U.S. history — which continue to haunt us to the present day — while also showing that generations of Americans have struggled, sometimes at great personal cost, to realize the highest ideals of the Founders. It is imperative to teach that the United States was not created based on shared ancestry — as nativists such as Trump seem to believe — but on shared devotion to the “unalienable rights” enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. It is important, as well, to simply teach the nuts and bolts of U.S. government that so many, including Trump, know so little about.
The federal government can’t mandate school curricula, but it can use its power of the purse to encourage schools around the country to reinvigorate the teaching of history and civics — as has already happened with the common core for English and math. Students do need to learn more about our history and institutions, but they don’t need the White power propaganda that Trump promotes.