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Social Studies

Trump Commission Says Identity Politics and ‘Bitterness’ Have Warped History Classes

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 18, 2021 3 min read
President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a rally on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

A commission created by President Donald Trump to influence what children learn about American history says the rise of identity politics, and a nefarious “bitterness” about the country’s founding and its seminal events, have distorted perceptions about the nation.

In a report released Monday on the national holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., the 1776 Commission also criticized the direction of the civil rights movement because it “almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders.” The group’s report contends that “the original form of identity politics was used to defend slavery.”

And it says that America’s founders, far from being hypocrites about slavery, helped ensure its eventual demise; the report also says slavery was the rule rather than the exception throughout much of history in a way that it is “very hard for people brought up in the comforts of modern America” to understand.

Trump created the commission via executive order last November. The group was led by Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, and counted Charlie Kirk, the leader of the pro-Trump political group Turning Point USA, among its members.

The report accuses identity politics, and its influence on history studies, of fostering resentment by trying to divide people into separate, protected classes based on race and other characteristics. Instead, the 1776 Commission report says, schools and others who have roles to play in sharing the nation’s history should focus on providing a “patriotic education” that celebrates America’s ideals, its progress, and what unites its citizens, even as people are taught about the nation’s flaws and mistakes. That will help lead to a restoration of American education and a “national renewal,” it says.

“States and school districts should reject any curriculum that promotes one-sided partisan opinions, activist propaganda, or factional ideologies that demean America’s heritage, dishonor our heroes, or deny our principles,” the 1776 Commission goes on to say. “Any time teachers or administrators promote political agendas in the classroom, they abuse their platform and dishonor every family who trusts them with their children’s education and moral development.”

The 1776 Commission and its report have no official or mandatory role in what students learn, and it’s a virtual certainty that the incoming Biden administration will have no use for the group’s work. But the spirit behind the commission could play a role outside the Beltway; last November, for example, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, proposed spending $3 million to focus on “the incredible accomplishments of the American way” in his state.

Trump announced the commission last year, when during his re-election campaign he called for “patriotic education” and attacked many schools for teaching students to “hate their own country.”

The strategy culminated in a fiery September speech in which Trump denounced the work of many educators and announced that he would create the commission. His comments inspired a backlash from some social studies teachers who said the president’s comments were misleading and painted a false portrait. The Zinn Education Project, for example, said a crucial part of its work was to to teach students “a history that looks honestly at social injustice and at the movements that have sought to make this a more equal society.”

Trump’s rhetoric about the topic last year marked a departure from 2017, when he signed an executive order prioritizing state and local control over curriculum decisions.

The 1776 Commission’s report blames a variety of factors and actors for what it says is the degradation of historical studies, including the 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine collection of essays about the influence of slavery on America, and what it calls the “anti-American” attitude of many in academia. Trump singled out the 1619 Project in his September remarks on Constitution Day.

“In most K-12 social studies and civics classes, serious study of the principles of equality and liberty has vanished,” a section of the report’s appendix states. “The result has been a rising generation of young citizens who know little about the origins and stories of their country, and less about the true standards of equality and liberty.”

In addition to an emphasis on identity politics, the 1776 Commission’s report includes a summary of America’s founding and the Constitution, as well as sections on communism and fascism. It also traces the start of “the protracted decline of American education” to progressive reformers in the late 19th century. And it criticizes the Common Core State Standards.

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