Social Studies

History Educators Respond to Trump: It Matters How We Tell the National Story

By Sarah Schwartz — September 18, 2020 6 min read
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Social studies and history education organizations, and many teachers, criticized the president’s statements yesterday after he condemned history classes that include lessons on systemic racism for teaching what he called “lies” and “left-wing indoctrination.”

President Donald Trump’s remarks, at a Constitution Day event at the National Archives on Thursday, called for schools to “teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” echoing rhetoric on history curriculum that he has used throughout his reelection bid, as his campaign has promoted the teaching of American exceptionalism.

Trump also announced at the event plans to create a “1776 Commission” that would “promote patriotic education.” And he said that the National Endowment for the Humanities had awarded a grant to fund the creation of “a pro-American curriculum.”

In his speech, Trump also criticized two texts used in some history and social studies classes: A People’s History of the United States, by socialist historian Howard Zinn, and the 1619 Project Curriculum, a set of classroom materials organized around the New York Times Magazine project of the same name, which investigates how slavery has shaped American society, economics, and politics.

In a statement released on Thursday, the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional organization for social studies educators, responded to the president’s critique of the 1619 Project, writing that the organization “resoundingly rejects any effort by the federal government to silence social studies curriculum that explicitly addresses the centrality of slavery in the historical narrative of the United States.” Federal education law prevents the president from officially endorsing or preventing schools from using specific curricula.

The Zinn Education Project, which offers lessons and professional development based on Zinn’s approach to history, also issued a statement saying that the Trump administration “seek[s] to squash ... the power of a growing number of teachers who teach outside the textbook.”

“With a White House that on numerous occasions has defended white supremacy, it is more important than ever that educators of conscience uphold the right to teach a people’s history—a history that looks honestly at social injustice and at the movements that have sought to make this a more equal society,” the statement reads.

As EdWeek’s Andrew Ujifusa and Evie Blad wrote yesterday, Trump has aimed to score political points with his conservative base by entering into the culture war about how American history is taught. But these comments also strike at the heart of an ongoing debate about the purpose of social studies education—what values and ways of understanding the world are we hoping young people come away with?

“When there are moments of tension in the country, the teaching of history does come up. And our national story and how we tell that really does matter,” said Grace Leatherman, the executive director of the National Council for History Education.

“I hear a lot of people say, ‘Well why can’t the teachers just teach the facts?’ We know that there are facts in history. But what I didn’t hear yesterday was a conversation about interpretation,” she said. “It’s important that students understand there are multiple interpretations of history, as well as multiple perspectives.”

‘We Don’t Want to Tell Them How to Think’

A key tenet of history education is teaching students to work with primary sources and make their own judgments.

“We don’t want to tell them how to think,” said Kristen E. Duncan, an assistant professor of secondary social studies education at Clemson University. And even when these lessons do have civic aims, “blind patriotism” isn’t the goal, she added.

“The goal of social studies education is to help students learn how to be citizens in a pluralistic democracy,” she said. “We want our students to know how to engage with people who are like them and people who are different than them ... how to be cooperative, how to collaborate—not just coexist, but how to actually work together with different kinds of people.”

Still, ideological debates over how history should be taught have raged for decades. And as my colleague Stephen Sawchuk wrote in 2018, they are deeply tied to ideas about what civic values schools should instill.

Take a recent controversy around the Advanced Placement U.S. History framework: The College Board, which administers AP tests, altered the outline for the course for the 2014-15 school year. Critics argued the new framework was too focused on the negative aspects of the country’s history, and not focused enough on democratic values. For instance, the new framework claimed that Manifest Destiny “was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.”

Republican state legislators sought to block it from schools, and the Republican National Committee recommended that Congress withhold federal funding to the College Board until the group rewrote the document. After this pushback, framework was revised again, and historians called the updated framework “evenhanded.”

The United States doesn’t have national history standards. The last time the country tried to put together a shared set was in the early 1990s. About 200 historians and educators from across the political spectrum worked for two years on that project, which was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. They struggled to reach consensus on some of the same questions that remain front and center in debates about history education today—questions like, how should the standards strike a balance between acknowledging the multiculturalism of the country and emphasizing shared ideals?

Once the group did produce a final draft, Lynne Cheney, who was the head of the NEH when the grant was awarded, attacked the proposed standards for what she saw as an overemphasis on America’s faults. The Senate eventually voted against the draft of the standards.

Today, the ideological bent of history standards, curricula, and textbooks varies from state to state, often in connection with the political bent of leadership. Often, these materials downplay violence and discrimination, and minimize the contributions of people of color.

“If the president turned off Fox News long enough, and spent an hour with the textbooks that American children are reading, he would realize that there’s no need for a commission,” said Sam Wineburg, a professor of history and education at Stanford University. The materials “often do everything they can to hide the blemishes of this country that we need to fix,” he said.

“There’s this notion that history teachers are indoctrinating students to hate the United States, and that’s not what’s happening at all,” said Duncan. “A lot of what’s happening is the teaching of what we call the grand narrative.” This narrative suggests that America is a place of opportunity for everyone, and it minimizes the struggles that many marginalized groups have long faced, she said.

But Leatherman says that teachers don’t have to avoid discussions of oppression and resistance to be patriotic. “Loving your country doesn’t mean ignoring the parts of it that are hard,” she said.

Photo: President Donald Trump speaks to the White House conference on American History at the National Archives museum, Thursday, Sept. 17 in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.