The 1776 Unites Project Is an Exercise in Empty Capitalist BoosterismRoundup
tags: history education, teaching history, Donald Trump, 1776 commission
Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor of ethnic studies at Bowling Green State University.
On September 17, 2020, President Donald Trump announced he was creating a presidential commission to encourage “patriotic education” named the 1776 Commission. At the same time, across town, education secretary Betsy DeVos heaped praise on a new curriculum developed by conservative think tanks to counter what Trump termed the “twisted web of lies” spread by radicals that “America is a wicked and racist nation.” Earlier this summer, Arkansas senator Tom Cotton announced he was introducing legislation, the Saving American History Act of 2020, that would defund school districts that used the New York Times’ 1619 Project, an essay series that foregrounded the history of slavery and racism in US history.
While the specifics of what the president’s 1776 Commission will consist of have yet to be announced, the commission DeVos praises as “wonderful” — also named for the year of American independence — debuted this week, seemingly in coordination with Trump and DeVos’s culture war speeches. Contributors to 1776 Unites are open that they see the problem with emphasizing the history of slavery and racism as promoting a culture of “victimization” and giving permission to children to blame their failures on racism and capitalism. As one contributor, Dean Nelson, concluded, “We also must avoid rearing kids who see every setback they face through the lens of race and look for opportunities to be offended or outraged.”
According to the 1776 Unites project, the corrective to liberal histories of victimhood is teaching children that America is a land of opportunity, even in spite of the hiccups of its racist past, and that everyone can achieve wealth through hard work and self-uplift. Project essayist John Sibley Butler calls for more historical attention to the “Black Bourgeoisie” and characterizes the 1619 Project as ignoring “the history of my tradition and presents blacks as going from slavery to poverty, with no role models.” Emeritus professor of finance from the University of Tennessee Harold A. Black puts his finger on the real irritant that motivates these conservatives: “It was the War on Poverty’s resultant destruction of the black family that derailed our progress.”
For all the fury about the supposedly historically misleading account of America’s Revolution and Constitution propounded by the liberal New York Times, curiously, the curriculum developed by the Woodson Center, 1776 Unites, and consultants associated with various GOP causes does not deal with issues of America’s founding at all. There is not one word about the Founding Fathers or the American Revolution in any of its lesson plans or presentations. Instead, it is entirely focused on profiling two nineteenth-century “entrepreneurs,” Biddy Mason and Elijah McCoy. Mason and McCoy were selected, apparently, because the lessons to be taught to children are not about the United States at all, but are aimed to convey “resilience, grit, determination, self-reliance, and other positive inner resources and character traits.”
The project makes little pretense at being a serious look at American history. Instead, it’s empty boosterism for American-style free markets.
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