Following through on a plan he announced in September to promote “patriotic education,” President Donald Trump has unveiled plans to highlight positive portrayals of U.S. history—but it stays away from making any demands about what schools teach.
The executive order Trump released on Monday establishes the advisory 1776 Commission and tasks its members with producing a report on “the core principles of America’s founding” within one year. It directs relevant federal agencies to monitor schools’ compliance with current federal law requiring schools to offer educational programs about the U.S. Constitution each year on Sept. 17.
And the order directs the U.S. Department of Education to “prioritize the American founding” when deciding how to distribute certain existing federal grants for teaching civics.
The executive order focuses predominantly on public relations, and much of it is a critique of what it calls a “radicalized view” of U.S. history. Trump promoted the order from his personal Twitter account, and it now becomes part of his pitch to voters right before Election Day. But it does not and cannot change the law that prohibits the federal government from dictating or attempting to dictate what curriculum schools use. (At one point, the order mistakenly refers to the “Common Core curriculum” as an example of improper federal involvement in schools; the common core is a set of standards, not a curriculum, that was adopted by states.)
Indeed, at one point the executive order states that it’s Washington’s role “to protect and preserve State and local control over curriculum.”
However, any federal prohibitions notwithstanding, the president has recently made a point of decrying what students are taught about U.S. history. In campaign speeches, he said many children are essentially learning to hate their own country and ignore the uplifting legacy of America’s founders and others. And his official agenda for a second term includes a call for schools to “Teach American Exceptionalism.”
This rhetoric reached a peak several weeks ago on Constitution Day, when Trump attacked many history classes as “left-wing indoctrination.” He criticized the 1619 Project, a series of a New York Times Magazine articles that place slavery and its legacy at the center of American legacy, as tantamount to “child abuse.” The project has been adapted into a classroom curriculum.
In his Constitution Day speech, Trump also linked what he called biased and misleading classes on American history to the summer’s protests and unrest about racial injustice. Many history teachers in K-12 schools pushed back on what they called Trump’s damaging message and said the federal government should not be trying to “silence” teachers focusing on slavery and race in America.
Trump’s new executive order repeats these themes, stating at one point that, “Despite the virtues and accomplishments of this Nation, many students are now taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but rather villains.”
“Viewing America as an irredeemably and systemically racist country cannot account for the extraordinary role of the great heroes of the American movement against slavery and for civil rights,” the executive order also states.
The executive order states that the Education Department should factor in the promotion of “patriotic education” when awarding money under the American History and Civics Academies and American History and Civics Education-National Activities grant programs.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks on the environment at the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum Sept. 8 in Jupiter, Fla. (Evan Vucci/AP)