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Trump's latest executive order is a head scratcher to historians

In the midst of multiple national crises and a day before a close election, the president issued an executive order focusing on history. Even a historian scratches his head. 

One thousand Americans are dying every day, while a White House insider declares fatalities have dropped to “almost nothing.” Hyperpartisanship, combined with a genuine aversion to federal activism in the public interest, paralyzes the only entity that can provide the leadership required to address a pandemic that has gripped public and private life for eight months. But fear not. The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission has arrived just in time to address the true emergency: children in need of a patriotic education.

We live amid three deadly pandemics. COVID-19 is acute and of recent vintage. Systemic racism is chronic, dating back centuries. Climate change is an emergency whose impact threatens to persist far into the future. What the three crises have in common is the current administration’s refusal to acknowledge their dangers, a disinclination to take seriously the knowledge and advice of experts and a disposition to distract rather than act.

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Hence the new commission, which purports to address the true crisis: “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.… Failing to identify, challenge, and correct this distorted perspective could fray and ultimately erase the bonds that knit our country and culture together.” A dire outlook indeed. Once we have left COVID-19 in the rear view mirror, and closed our eyes to the implications of global warming (perhaps a few pesky fires here and there), our nation’s civil fabric will be torn apart by a curriculum that “obscures virtues, twists motives, ignores or distorts facts, and magnifies flaws, resulting in the truth being concealed and history disfigured.”

I’m a historian, not a psychologist, so I’ll set aside speculations about projection — whether the distortion of facts or concealment of truth — and focus on “history disfigured.” And what historians return to is the imperative of context, which no situation, past or present, can be understood without. 

That includes this Nov. 2 executive order, “On Establishing the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission.” Consider another executive order signed in September, “On Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping,” which prohibits inclusion of “divisive concepts” in professional development activities for employees of the federal government and its grantees and contractors. The language is familiar, citing “misrepresentations of our country’s history …designed to divide us and to prevent us from uniting as one people in pursuit of one common destiny for our great country.” 

This document came on the heels of a “White House Conference on American History,” on Sept. 17, at the National Archives. We watched the president decry “decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools…. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country.” The conference’s lone panel included only two historians among 10 speakers whose hyperbole otherwise stretched well beyond their expertise. References to the perils of “deconstructionist cherry-picking histories” and “absurdly simplistic explanations like class struggle and systemic racism” set the stage nicely for the president’s observation that “Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse in the true sense of those words.” 

The “doctrine” to which the president referred is “critical race theory.” This is not the appropriate venue to debate its merits or to evaluate the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which stands in the background of the executive order and was severely castigated in a recent column on The Hill. There is no shortage of contentious publications and conversations among professional historians about concepts like critical race theory or arguments like those advanced in the 1619 Project. But neither constitutes “child abuse,” which is a serious crime.

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Historians are neither a monolith nor a cabal bent on “replacing” 1776 with 1619 as a crucial moment in the making of the United States. So back to context — the preoccupation we do share. It is impossible to understand anything that happened in 1776, or a decade later at the Constitutional Convention, without considering the central role of a group of men who had grown up in slaveholding cultures, men who owned, bought and sold other human beings. As had their fathers before them. This is the world they knew, the world that shaped their world view. How that context influenced what these men created is essential fodder for conversations — in classrooms, professional conferences and other places where people encounter the story of the nation’s founding. 

This is what the executive order cannot comprehend. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution emerged from a room filled with people whose brilliance and patriotism enabled the gathered wisdom of the ages to trump the depth and influence of their experience in a slaveholding culture, not to mention their interests.

Like the nation’s Founders, we cannot divest ourselves of context any more than we can wish away the novel coronavirus or the reality of global warming. The president is tired of hearing about COVID-19. He’s tired of hearing about racism. His administration has tried to banish data generated by federal agencies relating to global warming. But these are facts that inhabit the world in which we live. Denying the history of subjects that divide us will not unite us any more than an aversion to data on COVID-19 could shield us from infection.

The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission, at least as envisioned in this executive order, rests on caricatures of history education and remarkable ignorance about how historical knowledge evolves and finds its way into classrooms. That process is not perfect. If I walk into 100 history classrooms I would disagree with much of what I hear. I might find some of it appalling. But I would not find child abuse. I would not find students “taught in school to hate their own country.” I would find teachers striving to use the history they learned to help students think about their country so that they too can work to make it better. 

James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association. This article represents his observations as an individual historian, and not a statement by the AHA. Follow him on Twitter @JimGrossmanAHA.