A Historian Takes on Trump's View of American HistoryRoundup
tags: teaching history, Donald Trump, Revisionist History, 1776 commission
Edward Ayers is executive director of New American History, where he was president from 2007 to 2015. New American History is an online project based at the University of Richmond, designed to help students and teachers see the nation’s history in new ways.
“We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” President Trump declared in the past week in a speech at the National Archives. “We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”
Such teaching would affirm that the United States stands first among nations in the virtue of its leaders, the genius of its institutions and the purity of its motives. While the nation’s vision and accomplishments rise above all others, this argument goes, its sins are merely those of humankind, for other nations, too, have sustained slavery and killed indigenous peoples.
Advocates of this kind of national history vilify those who deviate from such doctrine as people who hate the United States. They charge that teachers and professors who talk about injustices indoctrinate our young people so that they detest their country. Purveyors of untruth supposedly seek to divide Americans by emphasizing the wrongs of one group against another, by exaggerating supposed suffering and degradation.
For the past half-century, such attacks on “tenured radicals, political correctness, and distorted history” have poured out of op-eds and letters to the editor, out of speeches and official pronouncement, out of tweets and posts. History standards and textbooks have been weaponized for the battle.
Despite the sustained offensive by those who would save America’s honor, the insidious enemy apparently endures, as dangerous today as ever, worthy of frontal attack by the president of the United States and a new 1776 Commission “to promote patriotic education,” to inject an antidote to the “ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.”
These charges concern and puzzle me because they suggest I have been obtuse and perhaps even deluded. As it turns out, I have practiced history for most of the half-century in which these wars over history have been waged — and I have yet to meet anyone who works to destroy the United States. It makes me wonder whether I have been going to the wrong conferences and reading the wrong books, whether I have been left out of exclusive circles where plans are shared.
If this critique had merit, I should have been in the room when the plans were hatched. After all, I sought out the subjects often attacked as the nest of dangerous ideas. I have written books about crime and punishment in the South, about the rise of segregation and disfranchisement, about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Those topics deal with Black people, enslaved and free. They wrestle with lynching and chain gangs. They confront secession and the waging of war against the United States.