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Contesting the American past

Contesting the American past
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The deep divide in American politics has fueled an intense debate on the teaching of American history. As contemporary factions quarrel over the shape and direction of the future, they contest the nature of the past. One side wants a more balanced and inclusive U.S. history — the good, the bad and the ugly. The other insists on a celebratory account that extols the virtues of American civilization.

The debate has been going on for several years but intensified after publication of the 1619 Project by the New York Times on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in what would become the United States. The project consists of essays and creative works exploring the history of slavery and the persistence of systemic racism. Although it has its share of flaws, the 1619 Project is not an iconoclastic attack on American political institutions, the founding fathers or white society. 

Nevertheless, it has provoked a strong conservative backlash. “The whole project is a lie,” Newt Gingrich told “Fox and Friends.” One conservative publication described it as “bad history fueled by bad motives.” Five historians (all white, three retired) sent a letter to the Times applauding the project’s goals while challenging its conclusions. 

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These critics misunderstand the nature and purpose of the project. It is not a comprehensive history of the United States but a series of thought-provoking essays intended to start a conversation about how to present a more inclusive, nuanced interpretation of the American past. “It is easy to correct facts,” declared historian Leslie M. Harris in her critique of the work, “It is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history.”

Not surprisingly, the project also drew the ire of President TrumpDonald TrumpUS gives examples of possible sanctions relief to Iran GOP lawmaker demands review over FBI saying baseball shooting was 'suicide by cop' House passes bill aimed at stopping future Trump travel ban MORE. After all, his “Make America Great Again” movement rests on the assumption that the country was great when governed by white men. The MAGA movement requires a celebratory version of history, and the former president eagerly provided it. On Nov. 2, 2020, Trump signed an executive order establishing the 1776 Commission to “enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776 and to strive to form a more perfect Union.” As its title suggests, Trump intended the commission to counter the project’s claim that U.S. history began in 1619. 

Days before Trump left office, the commission delivered its report. The document reads like an ultra-conservative rant from the McCarthy-era of the 1950’s. It presents a romanticized version of the American past, dismisses the continued struggle for equality as “identity politics” and excoriates academics who challenge its worldview. It concludes with a call for national renewal based on the “traditional family” and schools that teach “enlightened patriotism.” 

More than 30 years teaching courses on western and world civilizations has taught me that presenting an inclusive view of history requires avoiding two pitfalls: Eurocentrism and American exceptionalism. “Eurocentrism,” or “Western-centrism,” postulates that the highest form of civilization began in the ancient Mediterranean and matured in Western Europe. The theory views the civilizations of pre-Columbian America, Africa and Asia as inferior to that of the West. American exceptionalism is a variant of Eurocentrism that considers the United States superior even to Europe. America is a “city on the hill,” the theory maintains, a beacon of enlightenment and democracy to all other nations.

The 1776 Report embraces American exceptionalism. It demands unapologetic patriotic education that reinforces MAGA ideology, privileging white voices above all others. Its America-first focus encourages a dangerous xenophobia. Students would be far better served by courses that present a comprehensive, objective view of American History that acknowledges the country’s failings as well as its accomplishments and recognizes the diversity of its people. 

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The debate over history education will not be resolved in Washington. It is playing out in thousands of communities across the country. Local control of schools guarantees that no uniform curriculum will be adopted. Many states have already opted for a celebratory approach to U.S. history. In 2010, the Texas Board of Education approved calling the “slave trade” the innocuous sounding “Atlantic triangular trade.”  In 2015, an Oklahoma legislative committee approved a bill withdrawing funding for Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History courses because the curriculum did not teach American exceptionalism. Georgia legislatures also threatened to defund AP history because the exam “minimizes discussion of America’s Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, [and] the religious influences on our nation’s history.” This year a state-funded Utah charter school allowed parents to opt their children out of Black History Month activities and reversed the decision only after facing intense local and national criticism.

Sadly, in an era of alternative facts, Americans cannot agree that real facts and historiography matter. Perhaps teaching our children and grandchildren a more balanced, inclusive history will help them heal deep divisions in American society when they become the next generation of leaders.

Tom Mockaitis is a professor of History and DePaul University and author of Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.