Jim Mamer Original

Patriotic History is Fake History

Feel-good stories and the series of platitudes studied in elementary and secondary textbooks is no way to teach the young.
A rally attendee holds a Trump flag in front of the Minnesota State Capital. September 12, 2020. Note: Flag image not an accurate historical representation. [Photo by Tim Evans/NurPhoto via AP]

By Jim Mamer / Original to Scheerpost

On September 17, 2020, in a speech at the first White House Conference on American History, Donald Trump said something that I agreed with; he declared that we must teach our children the “truth about our country.” Then he quickly reversed himself by explaining that “We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” 

Then Trump obviously felt a visceral need to add “Far left demonstrators have chanted the words, ‘America was never great’… In order to radically transform America, they must first cause Americans to lose confidence in who we are, where we came from, and what we believe.” He also used the occasion to announce that he had signed an executive order to establish a “national commission to promote patriotic education” calling it the “1776 Commission.”

Trump is likely to disagree, but truth is complicated, and the present situation is already unacceptable. Feel-good stories and the series of platitudes studied in elementary and secondary textbooks is no way to teach the young “who we are” or “where we came from.” 

Indeed, what is now taught has contributed to a lack of understanding of how our past affects our present. Centuries ago sculptors might have added a more heroic jaw or a more dignified nose to busts portraying the powerful, but by the early twentieth century Stalin had photos retouched to cut his enemies out of the historical record. 

Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway simply put a different twist on this tradition when she suggested the bizarre notion of “alternative facts” to defend the indefensible Sean Spicer. Alternative facts and alternative histories are not uncommon, and it should be clear they are not harmless. Consider the Tonkin Gulf Incident, organized denial of the Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide, and even William Barr’s act of attributing misleading conclusions to the Mueller Report. 

We should ask ourselves why such deception is so often believed. Perhaps some want to believe the distortion. Perhaps our educational system prepares many to accept simple explanations. Consider the mundane attempts to make children feel good about how the United States came to be. In elementary school children are taught comforting stories about such things as the first Thanksgiving featuring generous Indians with turkey and friendly colonists fixing vegetables. Such myths, even when half-forgotten, can establish themselves as foundational and when combined with other distortions they can overwhelm attempts to arrive at any understanding of a complex past. 

Most of us remember the Thanksgiving story, but I also remember having a vague sense of guilt because, as I got older, as the story became more and more unbelievable, I never questioned anyone about what happened to those Indians after that dinner. For me it was an early experience with cowardice. Why did I not question what I did not believe? Was I alone? Did not most of us notice that the native peoples seemed to disappear quickly from the textbooks? Did not most of us know deep-down that enslaving people could not have been morally right? 

For the majority, instead of beginning to learn in an age appropriate way about the conscious theft of Indian lands, the early attempts at genocide, and the early importation and expansion of slavery, children are taught a narrative of a colony’s successful harvest and tales of benign enslavement. 

I taught United States history, American government, and economics in California high schools for 35 years, and for all of that time I struggled to use the information presented in the history texts, struggled to present what was missing and to clarify what was distorted. As chair of the History/Social Science departments for 18 of my years in teaching, I spent a good deal of time searching for useful textbooks. They are difficult to find. I quickly learned that the newest textbooks tended to look like the old textbooks in both physical appearance and in content. Even the newest digital editions carry the same basic material. Virtually all suffer from a combination of missing information, disinformation, and bad writing. 

In America Revised, a fascinating study of American history textbooks, Frances FitzGerald concludes that, “History textbooks for elementary and secondary schools are not like other kinds of histories. They serve a different function, and they have their own traditions, which continue independent of academic history writing. In the first place, they are essentially nationalistic histories…. In the second place, they are written not to explore but to instruct – to tell children what their elders want them to know about their country. This information is not necessarily what anyone considers the truth of things.” 

And that is exactly the problem; our current history textbooks contain information that is not “the truth of things.” Their inevitable message is that history is composed of little more than a series of things that happened, rather than being an argument about, and an examination of, causes and consequences. This simplistic history is likely to be a model for Trump’s Patriotic History.

The fact is that historical myths can result in bizarre observations by adults who should know better. I trust that Senator Tom Cotton believed that he spoke the truth when he recently told The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that slavery was “the necessary evil upon which the union was built.” 

Such delusion is unfortunately fairly common and it is amplified when the belief that slavery was a “necessary evil” is added to stories of Europeans settling in a “virgin land” following the will of God to create “a city on a hill.”  The sum of these falsehoods helps create an enduring myth that the early history of the United States is a story of Christian white people. Like President Trump, President (and historian) Woodrow Wilson certainly promoted such an illusion in suggesting that, “America was born a Christian nation. America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.” Such fantasy can justify a lot of injustice.

When Trump demands we teach Patriotic History, he clearly envisions the magnification of the feel-good story of the first Thanksgiving, stories of semi-contented slaves, liberty and justice for all, innocent settlers and savage Indians, Manifest Destiny, and American Exceptionalism. He is obviously calling for a continued refusal to tell the complex stories of the native peoples. He is demanding that schools avoid telling honest stories about those who were enslaved, or telling the real stories of many others, like women, who were systemically denied rights. He is calling for the conscious creation of a more coherently exceptional past which would leave voters even more vulnerable to nonsensical slogans like Reagan and Trump’s “Make America Great Again” or Hillary Clinton’s even more absurd response “America never stopped being Great,” neither of which promised anything productive. 

In many discussions with textbook authors, representatives of publishers, as well as with fellow teachers I have heard a number of excuses for the currently used history texts including the ubiquitous, “Don’t worry, they will learn the rest in college.” But that excuse does not hold up. The majority of Americans, including those who earn college degrees, are likely to have learned most of what they know about American history from the stories told in elementary school and in high school. 

Consequently, even without the new pressure to teach Patriotic History, the current textbooks present major stumbling blocks to an honest and inclusive past. A report based on census data and published in 2016 supports this point. It shows that 88 percent of Americans over 25 had at least a high school diploma (or a GED) while about 33 percent held a bachelor’s or a higher degree. Americans who study history after high school have a variety of experiences, but it is safe to say that more than half of the adults in this country obtained most of what they know about American history by the time they finish 12th grade. 

There are signs of hope. As a teacher I was also an active member of the California Teachers Association (CTA) which has recently declared itself committed to anti-racism. The current CTA President, E. Toby Boyd, advised (in the June/July issue of California Educator Magazine), “We must come together to stop the chorus of hate and fear, and utilize our people power, both personally and at the ballot box.” Unfortunately, CTA’s commitment, while welcome, predictably lacks detail. Is it not obvious that fighting for an honest assessment of our past will require more than “coming together?” We must insist on adding the details.

Despite the complexity of the situation this is no time for pessimism. While the spread of coronavirus has left much of the world in turmoil, in the United States much of our turmoil has nothing to do with the virus. Americans are confronting, some for the very first time, the fact that this society has suffered, and does suffer, from extreme racial division. Different groups of people experience different realities and live with different histories. Whereas in the recent past many white Americans appear to have accepted the mythology that most of the violence perpetrated by authorities was necessary, or at least legal, that acceptance has greatly diminished. 

It is becoming clear to large numbers of Americans that the philosophical premise of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal, has never described the workings of the United States. This has created the need to move toward full acknowledgment of our past and an opportunity to identify why so much discrimination, so much violence, and so much inequality has been accepted for so long and by so many. 

At least two factors have made this inevitable. First, as the murder of Black people by police and vigilantes continued apace, the crimes have been increasingly recorded on cell phones and widely broadcast. Second, Black Lives Matter, founded in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer in 2013, has rapidly grown in organizational skill and influence. The tipping point was the widely broadcast video of the murder of George Floyd.

We must make it as clear that Trump’s demand for Patriotic History is a demand for fake history. While replacing the consciously selective, currently used versions of textbook history with more inclusive, more uncomfortable, and more complex understandings of who we have been will require long-term effort, what is happening now gives me hope. Unfortunately, the current textbooks are moving targets; every state’s books are potentially different because there is no enforceable national standard defining what must be taught. 

The frameworks outlining what is required in American history are set at the state level, and these are subject to pressure from interest groups. Even the College Board, the company behind Advanced Placement courses in American History, has revised its standards to include the teaching of American Exceptionalism. After the standards are set and the textbooks are produced, they must again be approved by state and local committees, and these are again subject to substantial pressure. Real change in the content of textbooks will require time, but I believe teachers, parents and students can begin to advocate for change now

Teachers must continue to research, read and discuss academic histories in order to share with students what is missing from the current texts. This is time consuming. I tried continuously, but I was recently reminded that I was not always successful. I received an email from a wonderful former student who was disturbed about the recent media attention devoted to the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. She asked me if I had taught her class, 20 years earlier, about what had happened in Tulsa. I confessed that I had not. My excuse? I had not learned of the Massacre (of Black Wall Street) until after she had graduated. 

Parents can also help. They should become as familiar as possible with what is, and is not, in the textbooks used by their daughters and sons. They must insist, for example, that no elementary text be adopted by a school if it repeats things like the Thanksgiving myth. When parents are able, they might ask teachers how they intend to fill in the gaps that make the experiences of many Americans invisible. 

Students also need be prepared to ask questions. For example, when presented with a section, or a chapter, entitled “Manifest Destiny” one obvious question might be: “How is Manifest Destiny different from Ethnic Cleansing?”

William Faulkner put it succinctly, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


Jim Mamer is a retired Orange County high school teacher and principal. He won the United States Social Studies Teacher of the Year award in 1992.

Jim Mamer
Jim Mamer

Jim Mamer is a retired Orange County high school teacher. He won the United States Secondary Teacher of the Year honor in 1992, as selected by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). He was a Coe Fellow for study of United States History at Stanford University in 1984.

10 comments

  1. Thanks so much. For all these urgent connections, including pedagogy, union solidarity and, yes, the mass popular civic literacy needed to be modeled by parents! At our house, two hard copy newspapers arrive each morning. Our kid reads them. “…what happened to those Indians after that dinner?” indeed.

  2. This is an important issue, not only for teachers and students of US history, but for all Americans. How can we ever expect to improve our society if we simply gloss over all of the scars. As a history teacher, I want my students to examine American history, not as hagiography, but through a critical lens. While the US has never lived up to the potential described by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, certainly we can all agree that it should be our goal to meet, or even exceed that potential. How can we expect Americans to grow if they don’t understand that, not only have we failed to live up to the ideals, but that the ideals espoused by the likes of Jefferson were not really as universal as we would like them to be today. In teaching students to think critically, we must expose them to these contradictions, if for no other reason than to make them uncomfortable enough to seek meaningful improvement on the American circumstance.

  3. to this day incompetent amerikan teachers pretend that the civil war regarded slavery
    “nowhere in amerikan public education are the concepts of truth and falsity ever addressed nor are ideas”. Neil Postman
    “amerikans are not educated to think sociologically or historically”. Morris Berman

  4. one addition—history is not dead facts as Marx noted. History requires an examination of national character, and relevant comparisons, analogies, equivalences. It is not that patriotic history is necessarily fake–when awkward evidence is ignored whether uncritical or critical then it becomes propaganda

  5. First it must be said: The Education President? The irony thickens! Such an exemplar of scholastic achievement –one who apparently paid someone to take his SATs and persuaded his sister to do his homework. Of course, Trump’s view of education (or any other human activity for that matter) is strictly transactional, devoid of any principled position, including patriotism (maybe that least of all).

    This most recent iteration of the cultural wars reflects the issues that were the focus of a series of lectures by Walter Lippmann (these lectures were later compiled under the title, American Inquisitors), warning against the threat that political power presents to what you call an “honest” education. Although not as notorious as the Scopes Trial, the McAndrew case in 1927 involved similar accusations against an educator for ‘seditious’ acts. The ‘trial’ of William McAndrew, the Chicago superintendent of schools and a noted curriculum reformer, resulting in his removal from office, was promoted by mayoral candidate, Big Bill Thompson. Under the campaign slogan of “America First!”, Thompson vilified McAndrew as “un-American and pro-British” for his fealty to King George in his selection of “treason-tainted school textbooks.” Thompson based his claims on the conclusions of a five-month investigation conducted by former congressman, John J. Gorman. The Gorman report maintained that “the sinister alterations in a score of American school histories by which our annals are perverted, our heroic fathers defamed and their ideals and achievements grossly distorted to the children…[require] the purification of our histories” and that “the dissemination of American patriotism can be successfully attained only by the compilation of an entirely new history.”

    Not even past indeed. I think it is important to keep this in mind when considering “curriculum” of any kind: it is not that knowledge is power, as we are inclined to believe, but that power constructs knowledge–to its own ends.

  6. I’m not a history nor a government teacher.
    I’m not an educator at all actually. But I have been a student of the public education system, much influenced by the history and government taught to us there and lived a life since so justifiably such a perspective, I think, is useful. And from that perspective I am here to testify that it is exquisitely important that true truth be taught to us and our children. As one of the numerically rare African-Americans who started his life in the inner city where despair, hopelessness and police/system brutality are as common as entitlement is in the suburbs and by the sheer will and self sacrifice of my parents I traversed through those white burbs onto an eventual ivy league education and into a respectful profession lauded by many, achieved by few, black or white. I am grateful,… but aware as well.

    I say this only to make the point that none of us can lay claim to being the sole resource of our successes. We’ve all stood on the shoulders of those before us, right?. But the “rugged lone individual” is the deeply flawed ethos we Americans love to profess. Just watch any Hollywood action adventure movie from the past 100 years; they tell a greater story about ourselves than just the script itself. It’s what so many white citizens of our nation wish, nay, depend on believing; that American success and prosperity is due to some notion of self-sufficiency, personal ingenuity and righteous privilege. When in fact this entire nation was “discovered”, conquered and exploited by European exiles and expats who prized above all else property and ownership. Thievery, kidnapping, torture, slavery, even genocide if more convenient than compromise, (and it usually was), are the shoulders upon which this nation has succeeded. There’s profound hypocrisy in believing these guilty conceits being the things our country is an exception from. Oh, no! such atrocities are only the realm of monarchs, dictators and despots. Seriously?
    Mr. Jim Mamer is correct in his theses but especially in that we are delusional if we continue to teach a whitewashed (pun intended) version of our true history. As a physician I can’t help but liken majority America’s (read: white) psychological dependency on this sub-type of exceptionalism, as our primary self narrative, as being akin to the sociopathy of narcissism and borderline personality. That said, like in the beginning of any psychotherapeutic intervention or 12 step recovery program, truth and honest self assessment, amends to the injured, and definitive changes of the system that create permanent justice, for everyone, is the best single solution for what ails this deeply flawed nation. The truth and honest part of that sequence, clearly, must start with what we teach our children.

  7. Great article!! I went to high school at Newport Harbor High in Newport Beach, California in the late 60’s. It taught an utterly sanitized version of American and World history, forced impractical mathematics instruction for 4 years, and force fed us T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” for an interminable period. The best class of my 4 years there was “Cooking”. And I didn’t even want to take it.
    Seriously, I will soon be 66 years old, and one of the great regrets in my life, is that I did not play “hooky” from high school, two days a week, or even better, drop out all together.

  8. Great article! Thank you for articulating the complexity behind the pedagogical decisions that history teachers grapple with on a daily basis.

  9. Thank you for this thoughtful, timely piece. As a teacher in the field of educational therapy and former public school teacher in special education, I really appreciated this article. Our students are capable of learning comprehensive, impartial facts in their history classes from K-12. Our students are sharp, realistic, problem-solvers as well as bright, empathetic, idealists ready to learn from our true history as a nation in order to better inform their futures and their contributions to our country and the larger, global community. Through the years, their individual history teachers may have opportunities to expand lesson plans in order to better represent a fuller U.S. history than what is provided in current textbooks, not to mention include supplementary materials to counter an even more overt “patriotic history.” However, our students should be able to see these more complete historical analyses and summaries in their textbooks. We can and should trust our students with this information.

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