Martin Luther King Day, 2021: an opportunity for the United States to reflect on its past, honour a hero of the civil rights struggle, and seek unity against racial hatred. Given that this year’s King Day fell just two days before President Trump was due to leave office, the chance to engage with America’s past and present was more important than ever. This was also the day that the 1776 Commission released a report on national history education. This document shows not only that the US is as disunited about its past as ever, but that the ways in which we teach and understand history are of vital importance for present-day security.
The 1776 Commission was formed by President Trump in September 2020. In both name and mission, it represents a direct challenge to the New York Times’ 1619 Project(intended to expose and teach about the roots of the slave trade in American founding). This history was broadly rejected by Trump, who dismissed it as “left-wing indoctrination” and promised a report that would “teach our children about the miracle of American history.” For a President who has claimed the power to alter the truth of current events according to his own whims, rewriting history was just the next logical step in crafting his own version of America.
The resulting forty-one page report is a predictably sanitised version of national founding and history, extolling the virtues of the founding fathers and the constitution, while dismissing all those who would seek to “demean America’s heritage” and “dishonour our heroes” with any suggestion that the country was ever anything but a beacon of strength and moral superiority. It is American exceptionalism at its most textbook. And blind exceptionalism will indeed be the message of school textbooks if such thinking is continuously repeated and reproduced.
Perhaps the most blatant concern is the Report’s efforts to defend the issue of slavery. The authors go to great pains to explain that there was slavery in other countries, and the Constitution’s allowance of slavery was simply a matter of “practical politics”. Incredibly, the Report justifies the Fugitive Slave Clause, which enabled the return of self-freed slaves across state lines, as a mechanism to prevent slavery’s spread, to enshrine ‘consent’ as the basis of political legitimacy, and to prevent despotism. Furthermore, the Report attempts to justify the fact that many Founding Fathers owned slaves or directly profited from the system. Washington’s slave-holding is excused by the fact he freed them in his will, while Jefferson is forgiven because “he held slaves, and yet included in his original draft of the Declaration a strong condemnation of slavery”. Jefferson’s paradoxical language of freedom is interpreted as a sign that he was secretly against slavery all along, rather than as a mark of hypocrisy or indicative of a refusal to see people of African descent as human. In explicit terms, any claim that the Constitutional Framers were hypocrites due to slaveholding is branded as ‘untrue’.
This exoneration of the Founding Fathers and their documents is a primary theme of the Report. Their ideas of liberty and equality are presented as a universal constant, something that if not always achieved was always being aspired to throughout America history. Any criticism of the Founders, therefore, is presented as a challenge to Constitutional freedoms and America itself. There is no room for coexistence of patriotism and critical analysis of the past here. Love for your country cannot be achieved through examining its mistakes and learning from them, but only through “restoring patriotic education that teaches the truth about American history”. A truth, that is, selectively engineered to promote blind patriotism and selected political values.
There are, of course, other issues in the Report. The only sections of the Bill of Rights discussed are the First and Second Amendments. These respectively ensure freedom of speech and religion, and the right to bear arms. It is not surprising that the rallying cry of gun rights activists is upheld as “the fundamental and natural right to life”. America’s freedom of religion and lack of state religion is also celebrated, while the report takes every opportunity to extoll a country of God-given rights and Christian families who are encouraged to pray together. Elsewhere, socialism is dismissed as inherently anti-American, and the Pro-Life (anti-abortion) movement is presented alongside abolition, women’s suffrage, and Civil Rights efforts, as great tenets of American progress.
The Civil Rights movement furthermore is treated to a highly selective retelling. Racial unity is presented as the key element to overturning white supremacy, rather than decades of Black-led activism. The Report states that this unity “was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the ideas of the founding”. This refers to Black Power, but also to affirmative action, theories of systemic racism, and identity politics. It criticises ‘group rights’ as preferential treatment ‘not unlike’ segregation and white supremacy. In fact, this argument is under the heading of “Racism and Identity Politics”, which are framed as equal threats to American Society and the promises of its Founders. This section is almost certainly aimed at the Black Lives Mattermovement, as well as social policies aimed to help disadvantaged groups in America; All Lives Matter rhetoric can be celebrated as the true legacy of the constitution, while identity politics are a ‘rejection’ of King’s Dream. The fact that this report was published on Martin Luther King Day reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the legacy of a man pushing for radical social and economic transformation. King is reduced to a handful of sentences picturing a post-racial world and a photograph with white allies, being claimed by a right-wing agenda which now seeks to paint white America as the victim of racial oppression.
It is tempting to dismiss the Report as desperate propaganda and hilariously inaccurate. It would be easy to count the blatant untruths about American history – I found twenty-one, by the way – or laugh at the poor structure that sees its arguments fall all over themselves in an effort to avoid contradiction. Take heart, freshers still getting to grips writing essays – you have more coherence. It would be equally easy to shrug this off as inconsequential. Donald Trump is no longer the President and has no power to enforce such an education policy. President Biden has already taken steps to dismantle the 1776 Commission. However, education in the US is primarily organised at the local level, with state mandates and local school boards deciding what may be taught in classrooms. A change in Presidency will not stop these principles being adopted around the country.
Furthermore, the Report is simply the latest event in a concerning trend in educational reform and nationalist revisionism. For example, in 2010 the Texas Board of Education mandated history and social studies teaching through the lens of an explicitly Protestant America. In October 2020, an Ohio high school was reported giving extra credit to students who watched ‘educational videos’ from the alt-right information website PragerU entitled “The Ferguson Lie” and “Build the Wall”. And as early as 1995, James Loewen wrote that “Textbooks are often muddled by the conflicting desires to promote inquiry and to indoctrinate blind patriotism.” The battle over classrooms is nothing new.
Perhaps even more disturbing than the lies told over American history, is the final section of the Report entitled “The Task of National Renewal”. This contains a blatant dismissal of universities, academia, and professional history. It states that “Universities in the United States are often today hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship that combine to generate…outright hatred for this country”. This “deliberately destructive scholarship” is furthermore blamed as the intellectual voice behind violence, political mistrust, and free speech. The contents of the 1776 Report, and similar efforts to teach a selective version of history, have shown that it is more important than ever to stand up for historical fact. This is true in all countries. Michael Gove’s 2014 push for ‘British Values’ in the history curriculum springs to mind. However, how are historians supposed to set the record straight if our work is dismissed as leftist lies and fake history? There are no easy answers. It is all we can do to recognise lies about the past as the danger they are and continue to call out political rewrites of the past. In the words of the 1776 Report itself:
‘To restore our society, academics must return to their vocation of relentlessly pursuing the truth and engaging in honest scholarship that seeks to understand the world and America’s place in it’.
Honesty and truth have never been more important.
Written by Jess Womack
Image: Getty Images