Trump is Afraid of Honest HistoryRoundup
tags: AHA, American Historical Association, teaching history, Donald Trump, 1776 commission
James Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association.
“Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse in the true sense of those words,” the president of the United States declared recently at the White House Conference on American History. He was referring to an approach to teaching history called “critical race theory,” which ties together ideas about power, race and the law in ways that are sufficiently controversial to generate fierce and meaningful debate.
First things first. For the president to liken a controversial pedagogical theory to child abuse trivializes a serious crime and its traumatic effects. The provocative, false statement must be denounced before it has a chance to resonate.
The president made other provocative claims at the conference. “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country.” He went on to propose the creation of a “national commission to promote patriotic education” to redeem the way we teach history.
The president’s comments are a lot for a historian to unpack. They have implications for what happens in our classrooms, from the content of curriculum and textbooks to the more fundamental questions of the purpose of history education and the meaning of patriotism.
Professional historians teach students to wrestle with the past honestly. We read widely, drawing insights from various theoretical frameworks. We test ideas, with each other and with our students. We rely on theories to generate questions and to stimulate thinking.
A student who reads and learns from Karl Marx is not being indoctrinated in Marxism, nor is one who reads and learns from Adam Smith being indoctrinated into capitalism. They are being taught how thinkers have thought about society at different moments in time, and they are being encouraged to think for themselves.
We teach that bad things happen as well as good things. For example, we hope our students will learn about crimes against humanity with consequences that linger. We even teach them to argue about what constitutes a crime against humanity — drawing on evidence from the past and controversial theories that offer different perspectives. We argue about difficult issues essential to the histories of all places we study and teach, including the United States.