Trump's 1776 Education Plan Part of a Decades-Long, Right-Wing Movement — But ScarierRoundup
tags: history education, teaching history, Donald Trump, 1776 commission
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is associate professor of history at The New School in New York City. She is the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture and the host of the "Past Present" podcast. She tweets @nataliapetrzela.
“It’s time we learned our children are being taught, in the name of civics, social science and history, doctrines so subversive as to undermine their faith in the American way of life,” said a Republican statesman enraged that in a precarious political moment, public schools were teaching impressionable young children the dangerously unpatriotic lesson that “the American way of life had failed.”
This is not, however, a snippet of the President Donald Trump’s speech last week at the National Archives, in which he condemned how the “left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies.” This was the complaint of Missouri legislator and later GOP Rep. O.K. Armstrong, arguing in 1940 about “Man and His Changing Society,” a textbook series by progressive educator Harold Rugg that encouraged students to examine “social problems” rather than to uncritically celebrate the past. Printed in American Legion Magazine under the headline “Treason in the Textbooks,” Armstrong’s essay condemning Rugg went viral, at least by 1940 standards.
Trump echoes Armstrong so obviously because conservative jeremiads about how progressive curricula corrupt innocent children are fixtures in the history of American schooling. He specifically took aim at The New York Times' “1619 Project” and college-level seminars in “critical race theory” that “try to make students ashamed of their own history.”
For decades, similar claims have been made about social studies, reading and even sex education curricula. Whether in 1940, 1968 or 2020, this genre of conservative complaint is remarkably consistent: Elevate the Founding Fathers rather than emphasize that they were slaveholders or expropriated Native Americans; celebrate rags-to-riches tales of individual entrepreneurialism rather than persistent poverty; chronicle an uninterrupted forward march of progress rather than dwelling on missteps or decline.
But today’s battle in what I call America’s ongoing “classroom wars” is both the outgrowth of, and potentially far more momentous than, these past skirmishes. What hangs in the balance is not a singular social studies curriculum, but the principle of critical inquiry and our very system of public education.