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.