What Trump Doesn’t Understand About U.S. HistoryRoundup
tags: history education, teaching history, Donald Trump, 1776 commission
Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University.
Many, if not most, U.S. presidents have taken the nation’s history very seriously. A few, most recently John F. Kennedy, have even written thoughtful works of history. So to see President Trump make a mockery of our past, as he did last week at his self-serving conference on American history at the National Archives, where he announced a new commission on “patriotic education,” registers a new low.
Trump knows practically nothing about American history, cares even less and displays his ignorance breezily. He is amazed to learn that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. (“A lot of people don’t know that.”) He asked Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” Nothing makes the case for overhauling our teaching of basic U.S. history and civics like the 45th president.
Trump describes history as a saga of heroes and villains, good vs. evil, pure and simple. The United States is the embodiment of good, “the most exceptional nation in the history of the world,” he said last week, whatever that means. Studying history is supposed to instill love of country. But today, he warns, the good and the love are under attack from evil radical leftists, “aided and abetted by liberal politicians” including, of course, Joe Biden. American history, in short, instructs us to vote for Trump.
Patriotic education, as Trump conjures it, features the stories of exemplary champions, conquerors and explorers — “some of the most incredible people who ever lived,” he extolled at the Archives. It teaches history in the spirit of admiring uplift cultivated at the nation’s founding by George Washington’s first biographer Parson Weems, with little room for complexity or imperfection or tragedy. It is history designed not to enlighten but to build students’ devotion to a land of infinite hope, a nation “where any dream can come true,” where right always triumphs over wrong and where seldom is heard a discouraging word.
None of this has anything to do with history and everything to do with Trump. American government is actually founded on the ambivalent principle that there is good and evil in everyone. “If men were angels,” James Madison wrote, “no government would be necessary.” The Constitution prescribes a system of checks and balances to deter any would-be tyrant, a figure the Framers knew the United States might very well produce.
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