President Donald Trump recently announced a commission on “patriotic education” that aims to refute the focus on systemic racism and the role of slavery in our society. This will ultimately propagandize and omit the truth in confronting difficult aspects of our history.
American schools have grappled with this nation’s complex, malevolent treatment of Native Americans, enslaved Africans and other immigrants by glossing over our troubling chapters, such as the horrors of the “peculiar institution” by referring to enslaved Africans as “workers” and the omission of the federal government’s anti-Asian racism and internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s.
We can’t allow the daily onslaught of politics to obscure an attempt to palliate the painful aspects of American history that fall short of our ideals. Nonpartisan, scholarly, community-involved curriculum reform that honestly assesses our past and connects to our present social challenges will “help redeem the soul of America” for our schoolchildren.
This commission was probably triggered by the 1619 Project, a supplemental curriculum authored by journalists, historians and social scientists contextualizing modern America through the legacy of slavery, starting 401 years ago. Schools in Chicago and Washington, D.C., as well as parents, have used lessons from the project. Although the 1619 Project has inspired debate about some claims, commentators have commended its focus on slavery and amending of previous colonial America history. This is important, as most of us learned a history that did not detail linkages between chattel bondage and mass incarceration, for instance.
Historian Leslie Harris states “the criticism… has emboldened some conservatives to assert that such ‘revisionist history’ is flat-out illegitimate.” These critiques should not blunt the impact of researchers who have re-examined much of the American myth and discovered through careful research that slavery, and the economic system undergirded by it, impacted the development of our institutions, such as universities. We must grapple with these legacies of hypocrisy and perpetuation of white supremacy, despite contrary rhetoric.
This more critical analysis of history is a response to previous problematic understandings of our past. More than 100 years ago, the United Daughters of the Confederacy created commissions ensuring textbooks depicted the Civil War as a struggle over states’ rights and sugarcoated slavery as a protective institution. Such books were in use until the 1980s. Here in Texas, as recently as 2010, textbooks had removed slavery as a central cause of the Civil War, an inaccuracy that existed until 2018.
Many of us were educated with a curriculum that glorified the Confederacy, omitted contributions of people of color, relegated women to a subordinate role and overlooked the attempted genocide of Native Americans. For some, providing an accurate rendering of these events appears to be “propaganda.”
Patriotic education resembles the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s 1920 “Truths of History,” proclaimed to be “a fair, unbiased, impartial, unprejudiced and conscientious study of history” — while heralding the Ku Klux Klan and the beneficial treatment of slaves in the South. Americans should demand that patriotic education be replaced by a commission committed to truth and reconciliation, helmed by scholars and educators well-versed in history. School leaders should lead this effort because they are the ones who will ultimately deliver the courses. Students of color should be included and see their communities reflected in this curriculum.
Patriotic education recalls McCarthyism and some of our darkest moments. Let’s remember, as Sinclair Lewis and former New York City Mayor John Lindsay said, that true patriotism is reflected in dissent. A commission grounded in scholarly dissent of the myths of American history would actually make this country great. We should be courageous enough to embrace it.
Reddick is a professor and associate dean for equity, community engagement and outreach for the College of Education at the University of Texas.