American History XYZ

YOU MAY NOT HAVE BEEN thinking about American history on September 17, not in the longitudinal sense. Maybe you were taking a limited view of the historical arc, something like, “What the fuck?” That morning, as he often does, Trump connected the immediate and the long-view senses of history by announcing the “1776 Commission,” a body conjured from thin air and allegedly dedicated to the case of “patriotic education.” The proximate insult that Trump and his speechwriters were responding to was the New York Times’s 1619 Project, a collection of essays and study resources with a longer view that won Nikole Hannah-Jones the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. “This project,” Trump said, “rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.” It is not clear how Trump wants to teach the experience of enslaved people in the seventeenth century as an example of “freedom,” if he even admits that the seventeenth century happened, but he indicated in this announcement that the larger problem his 1776 Commission would counter is “critical race theory.” The second affront to which the 1776 Commission was responding was a recent post about whiteness on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture website, a chart that drew from a 1978 book called White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training, written by Judith H. Katz. The infographic, titled “Aspects & Assumptions of Whiteness & White Culture in The United States,” proposed cultural attributes of whites, like a taste for bland food and high regard for Barbie. Less specific in its reporting than the 1619 Project and somewhat reductive, this chart was removed from the Smithsonian website after complaints. “Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse in the truest sense of those words” was Trump’s take.

Responding to the assertion of 1619 as a key date in US history, Trump said, “America’s founding set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, secured civil rights, defeated communism and fascism, and built the most fair, equal, and prosperous nation in human history.” That’s a lot of telos for either 1776 or 1619 to hold. You almost want a historian to step in at this point and, for a brief moment, it seemed like that would happen. At the end of his speech, Trump mentioned the “respected scholars involved in this project, including Professor Wilfred McClay, . . . Dr. Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars, . . . and Ted Rebarber.” When I contacted them, though, all three told me they were not involved and knew nothing about the 1776 Commission. Neither the White House, the Department of Education, nor the National Endowment for the Humanities responded to requests for comment.

Trump’s summary beef on September 17 was that the left has “warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies.” Not stopping there and apparently feeling himself on a conceptual roll, Trump issued the Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping five days later. This edict makes it illegal for federal contractors, subcontractors, or grantees to cause anyone to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex,” among other things. The engine here seems to be a sort affective mayhem. Trump and his people have suffered psychological distress at the hands of the radical left and feel the need to lash out. As retaliation, they’ve proposed a series of measures, and though they will likely not have any concrete outcomes, the idea of them has the power to scare citizens away from engaging in anything that might plausibly be covered by the executive order.

In the hopes of better perceiving the American history being batted around, I talked with educators and historians. My first hunch was to look for incidence of reliable books that Trump would disapprove of—Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s brilliant An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, or Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race. But that only led to false positives. It became clear that distinct versions of American history do not manifest in conflicting schools of writing, because delusional mythmakers don’t need books. The story right now is about incompatible approaches to the use of history. Meredith Gavrin, a civics teacher and cofounder of the New Haven Academy, told me, “I worry about school administrators or teachers or state legislatures, just wanting to take the safe route on these questions in the curriculum and not ruffle feathers. We could end up with a meaningless course of study, you know?”

That safe route hove into view this October for actor William Jackson Harper. After setting up a virtual film screening through the Arts in the Armed Forces organization, Harper hit the Trump sandbar. Three out of four military academies agreed to screen Malcolm X, the film decided upon after enlisted personnel were polled. One didn’t, though—“for fear of potential consequences . . . stemming from an Executive Order from the White House,” Harper tweeted. There was no direct pressure—this was self-censorship, influenced by this administration’s view of what constitutes “anti-American.” But what is that influence’s range? A military academy likely feels closer to the federal government than, say, most public schools. In the New York City public-school system, for example, there are many layers of supervision and oversight that matter more than the federal government’s bullying. Mild proximate censure is usually more compelling than distant, severe consequences. Trump would have to wave very vigorously to distract the average New York educator from her district supervisor.

The reality of how and where American history is taught, or avoided, is a good index of how people work through the increasingly common question of “Where do we go from here?” That may, in your case, involve the notion of moving out of America. But the American tendency toward state-level decision-making means that the influence of the federal government on the content of your local education is possibly light and sometimes negligible. With the considerable exception of the funding and the fear, which are neither negligible nor predictable.

W. E. B. Du Bois, Negro Teachers in Georgia Public Schools, ca. 1900, ink and watercolor on board, 28 x 22". Library of Congress
W. E. B. Du Bois, Negro Teachers in Georgia Public Schools, ca. 1900, ink and watercolor on board, 28 x 22". Library of Congress

What we have now is a peculiarly American kind of chaos. The most influential teachers of American history right now may be QAnon boards and 4chan memes, but that’s beyond our purview. Thousands and thousands of people teach history, though not exactly in the chain of command Trump suggests. There are no mandated national-history standards, so even if Trump were to actually convene a commission, they would not have any legal sway over schools and curricula. The last time such a thing was attempted, in 1994, the standards were promptly criticized by the Republicans who helped fund them, most notably former NEH head Lynne V. Cheney.

Gary Nash, a celebrated historian at UCLA, led the committee that presented a new set of National History Standards in 1994. Three years of work by thirty-one organizations produced a solid, legitimate body of thirty-one standards. No matter—politics came first.

Cheney wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal in October of 1994 that denounced the National History Standards, loudly, taking special note of Harriet Tubman’s six mentions and Robert E. Lee’s absence. A week later, Rush Limbaugh appeared on TV, tearing pages out of a history book to demonstrate what the new standards might bring to pass. “Here’s Paul Revere. He’s gone!” And another sheet fell to the studio floor. Trump awarded Limbaugh a Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier this year, which may clarify what he means by “freedom.”

“Just after Republicans captured the House of Representatives, with Newt Gingrich in the chair, Cheney said, ‘I am going to form a new group to write better history standards,’” Nash told me. “That was in 1994. There’s never been a single piece of paper that has ever come from such a committee, if it was ever appointed.”

But then the committee never needs to exist. Fear doesn’t need to show its work—it’s a broadcast medium. While fear is dragging people in one direction, educators are often going in exactly the opposite direction. (Teachers are pretty good at ignoring bullies.) Many schools, for instance, are increasing their efforts to teach an antiracist curriculum. Last year, teachers in Chicago were given a new guide (not mandatory) to teaching about the 1919 race riots, and the Connecticut state senate unanimously approved a bill that required “African American, Puerto Rican and Latino studies” be a part of the public-school curriculum.

But each state curriculum, and the district curricula within that, is its own political world. Even if an educator doesn’t have to worry about the federal fear or funding, there are more immediate worries. Your neighbors are your next hurdle. For instance, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards were updated (which is routine) in September 2018 to remove Hillary Clinton’s name, as well as others, including Barry Goldwater, Bill Gates, and Estée Lauder. After an uproar from the left, the finalized version of Grade 8 TEKS added Clinton back in. “Either way, however, the TEKS don’t preclude any teacher from putting Hillary Clinton into a reading assignment or project or day in the classroom,” said Kayte VanScoy, textbook editor. “Absolutely anything a teacher might wish to direct her students to do, she can do, as long as her students are prepared to meet the minimum standards by the end of the year, which is determined by the test.”

And testing had a different relationship to history than other subjects in K-through-12 public education. The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002 by the Bush administration, and its update, the Every Student Succeeds Act, installed in 2015 by Obama’s administration, are both heavy on standardized testing. English and math are tested more consistently than any iterations of the social sciences, and those test results are often directly tied to funding.

This leaves history in an odd spot—more publicly rassled with, yet far from receptive to taming on the ground. History is a bit like prosperity, another popular specter for politicians. It can be adduced and celebrated and promised without ever needing to be produced, as an actual thing. The actual things being changed and argued over tend to be the names of recent political figures—Hillary Clinton and George Soros, for instance—and then the constantly roiling cloud that is the American Civil War. Slavery and Federalism go in, and then someone takes them out. It’s small, grimy work that is likely overwhelmed by the mist of online keywords. Removing any Clinton from a history book is, almost stem to stern, just a smaller and slower kind of filibuster.

The Gingriches tend toward a kind of historical editing that largely wants the least context possible, with the fewest obscure names. The other side, loosely referred to as the left, creates trouble by pointing out that enslaved people were enslaved. But the two sides, over time, have hardened into two groups whose combination seems unlikely. One cohort seems to believe in the process of inquiry and modification of proposals subsequent to ongoing discovery and argument. You could call these people fans of dialectical critique and not be entirely wrong. The other cohort simply wants A Story, an untouched delusion that is chosen and then simply reinstalled as time goes by. Whatever conservative values may have meant before, they have metastasized into some advanced fever of the Lee Atwater 1980s, with patriotism reiterated daily as a loose blend of gun mayhem, wide-spray racism, and deep, passionate aversion to the idea that there is anything like a system operating anywhere in America, or the world. Any political persuasion can become a fan of myth, despite a general tendency for the left to reject delusion, it’s true. But nobody can choose myth and inquiry both—it’s as zero as zero sum gets.

I asked Bill Fletcher Jr., lifelong trade unionist and writer, about the challenge of teaching history. After sketching out US history as an example of settler colonialism, very much the founding of America Donald Trump neither understands nor acknowledges, he broke it down. “I think the starting point for any discussion of US history is that the United States opposes history actively and embraces myth,” Fletcher said. “If you don’t get that, then none of the rest of this makes any sense.”

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in the East Village.