By Andrew Ujifusa and Evie Blad
President Donald Trump is continuing his concerted attacks on what he called “left-wing indoctrination” in history classes that teach students to disown America’s past and its founding ideals.
During an event on American history at the National Archives Thursday celebrating Constitution Day, the president also drew a direct link between what he called decades of “propaganda” taught in schools and this summer’s protests and unrest over racial injustice. He also reiterated his recent broadsides against the New York Times Magazine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which sought to more fully incorporate slavery and its effects into discussions of American history.
“We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and our classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” Trump said in his speech. He added that teaching the 1619 Project and ideas like Critical Race Theory “is especially harmful to children of minority backgrounds who should be uplifted, not disparaged. Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse in the truest sense of those words.”
In recent months, amid divisive debates over the role of race in the nation’s politics and culture, the president has sought to use debates about what children learn about American history to his political advantage. He’s called for schools to “teach American exceptionalism” and said that schools are teaching students to “hate their own country.” And Trump said during a campaign rally this month, “We will stop the radical indoctrination of our students and restore patriotic education to our schools. We will teach our children to love our country, honor our history, and always respect our great American flag.”
Earlier this month, he threatened to pull federal funding from schools that use the 1619 Project as a basis for classroom curriculum—however, Trump lacks the legal authority to do this. The Every Student Succeeds Act prohibits the federal government from endorsing or sanctioning schools for using a particular curriculum.
On Thursday, the president also used his speech to announce that he would create the “1776 Commission” that would be used to “promote patriotic education.” He also announced that the National Endowment for the Humanities had awarded a grant to fund the creation of “a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.”
The White House’s Thursday event, which celebrated the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, also included a panel discussion that featured pointed criticisms of the 1619 Project, historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and other historical studies that panelists said were focused on a radical and misguided interpetation of America’s past.
“Zinn’s book is full of the ideas that are inspiring riots this year,” said Mary Grabar, a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute, referring to racial protests and unrests this summer.
The architect of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, responded to the event with her own pointed observation about the White House’s panel of historians for Constitution Day:
The White House Conference on American History has not a single Black historian on it. Strange.
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) September 17, 2020
‘America Is an Exceptional Country’
In a separate appearance Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stressed that it’s not the federal role to mandate specific classroom lessons about any specific topic, even as she raised up a curriculum created in response to the 1619 project.
Speaking in an online discussion at the Reagan Institute Summit on Education, DeVos said she’s sometimes asked about a national civics curriculum in response to concerns that children aren’t learning about America’s history and its founding documents.
“Curriculum is best left to the states and to local education agencies, but we can talk about curriculum that actually honors and respects our history and embraces all of the parts of our history and continues to build on that,” DeVos told Ian Rowe, a resident fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
DeVos praised the 1776 Unites curriculum, which Rowe helped create. Rowe said it features “largely unknown African Americans, past and present, who embraced the ideals of free enterprise, faith, family, and hard work to be agents of their own uplift.” The project’s website has essays criticizing the 1619 Project and “the cult of victimhood.”
“America is an exceptional country,” DeVos said. “And we know this because there are millions of people the world around who want to come here, who want to be part of the American idea.”
But children often don’t learn an appreciation for “American exceptionalism,” she said. She cited results from the 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress Geography, and U.S. History assessments for 8th graders, which found many students lacking in knowledge of concepts like the Bill of Rights and the significance of the Lincoln-Douglass debates.
Photo: President Donald Trump holds a signed Constitution Day proclamation after he speaks to the White House conference on American History at the National Archives museum, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)