Why the 1776 Commission is a bad idea

Getty Images

On the day before the election, President Trump signed an executive order creating a “1776 Commission,” whose purpose is to promote “patriotic education.” The Trump administration appears to be responding to the 1619 Project, a publication of the New York Times that examines American history through the eyes of African Americans. 

This commission is campaign fodder for Trump’s base, who are fearful that the unblemished history they learned in high school and the cultural dominance of white men, are under threat. They are right. Over the past 50 years, historians have documented the hidden history of racism, injustice and unequal treatment sustained by people of color, especially African Americans. 

Trump’s executive order equates efforts to tell the full history of the United States, warts and all, as an attack on the Founding Fathers and the nation itself. The order claims that “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.” No evidence is presented for this hysterical rant. No objective research has been published to support these charges. 

So what is this commission supposed to do? It is directed to produce a report to the president within a year “regarding the core principles of the American founding and how these principles may be understood to further enjoyment of ‘the blessings of liberty’ and to promote our striving ‘to form a more perfect Union.’” The president’s opening statement hailed “self-government based on the consent of the people,” which is amusing considering he called for states to stop counting ballots two days after Election Day so he could be declared the victor in states where he was leading. If that failed, he promised to go straight to the Supreme Court to overturn any results that adversely affected his reelection.

Once the president receives the report, its spirit and principles are supposed to inform grants awarded by the Department of Education to any activities related to American history and civics. The report would also become the basis for any materials available at “national parks, battlefields, monuments, museums, installations, landmarks, cemeteries, and other places important to the American Revolution.” 

The executive order does not mandate that anyone adopt the “patriotic education” but encourages “parents and local school boards…and local communities” to reassert control of “how children receive patriotic education in their schools.”

So what is wrong with the 1776 Commission? To begin with, any federal effort to influence curriculum in the nation’s schools is against the law. Federal law has prohibited any such actions since the 1970s. The current law, found in Section 8526A of the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), states, “No officer of employee of the Federal Government shall through grants, contracts, or other cooperative agreements, mandate, direct, or control a State, local education agency or school’s specific instructional content.” It further bars federal encroachment in the curriculum.

The reason for this prohibition is that when the U.S. Department of Education was established in 1980, both parties feared that the other might try to impose its own views on the nation’s schools. So they agreed that the federal government would keep its hands off what was taught in the schools. 

In addition to violating the law, the 1776 Commission is a silly idea because history is not written by federal commissions, but by historians. History textbooks, which are supposed to be informed by scholarship, attempt to be completely neutral on controversial subjects. They are scrupulously fact-checked and scoured to remove any point of view. They are certainly not tinged with Marxism or radical socialist ideology; they do not teach students to “hate America.” Given the blandness of textbooks, it is the duty of history teachers to introduce students to conflicting versions of issues and events and encourage them to discuss and debate what they learn, not only from textbooks but from documentaries and other sources.

Those who study and teach history know that it is rife with controversy. Presenting history as a glorious series of heroic events is a disservice to students. Great leaders debated among themselves about the right course of action. Sometimes they made mistakes. By studying history, students learn to consider different points of view and to dig deeper to understand what happened. 

The worst flaw of the 1776 idea is that it is intended to refute the 1619 Project, which took seriously the importance of racism in our history. The problems in our society will never be resolved by denying their existence or papering them over with high-flown language about our founding principles. Only by confronting our history without blinders do we have a chance of making good on our founding principles.

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education. Follow her on Twitter @DianeRavitch.

Tags 1776 Commission American history American Revolution Donald Trump Education Every Student Succeeds Act executive orders Founding Fathers patriotic education Racism Slavery The 1619 Project trump executive order

More Education News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video