The threat of Trump’s new hopes for education

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In the latest phase of President Trump’s American culture war he aims to re-write American history, restore educational patriotism, and reverse institutional attempts to counter unconscious bias. The irony of his attempts to frame White America as victim would be almost amusing — were it not so dangerous.

Speaking at the White House History Conference, 17 September, President Trump announced plans to create a National Commission to Promote Patriotic Education. The Commission, which will be known as the 1776 Commission, appears to be a direct retort to the Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project. The 1619 Project, created by the New York Times, aims to re-frame American history around the date slaves first arrived on North America’s shores, emphasising the pervasive and lasting impact of slavery on modern America. Trump is attempting to diminish this history. Speaking of what he describes as ‘left wing indoctrination’, Trump has set his sights on removing the ‘hateful lies’ of white supremacy from the classroom. The President aims to ‘restore patriotic education’ by creating a ‘pro-American’ curriculum that celebrates the ‘miracle of American History’. Donald Trump is not only misrepresenting the realities of western education but also playing into an ultranationalist, neo-fascist, conception of patriotism.

In describing a diverse curriculum as unpatriotic or un-American Trump is promoting a narrow, rose-tinted, racially blinkered view of history.

Trump charges that children across America are being ‘taught to hate their own country’. The teaching he laments is the history of slavery, the displacement of indigenous Americans, and the persistent oppression of minority rights, but this is the truth of American history. As the 1619 Project aims to prove, modern America is built upon these events. The notion that a more ‘pro-American’ curriculum needs to be written flies in the face of years of international academic work to give minority writers due credit and to give voice to the historically voiceless.

White America is undoubtedly the protagonist in the histories we are taught. Academia is and always has been dominated by white male writers, curriculums the same. American history is already fundamentally ‘Pro-American’, even within the story of civil rights it is celebrating the successful agreement between moderate activists and those in power that is focused on. Rather it should be asked how did it take until 1964 to assure the rights promised in 1776 but this question do not fit a narrative that is already pro-American.

The claim that patriotism is under threat in a schools where The Pledge of Allegiance is still commonly recited, and where the national anthem is sung at all major sporting events, is a fabrication. In describing a diverse curriculum as unpatriotic or un-American Trump is promoting a narrow, rose-tinted, racially blinkered view of history that contributes to a kind of unconditional, unquestioning, patriotism more typical of a fascist Italy than the second largest democracy in the world. Neither nationalism nor patriotism are inherently antiquated or antidemocratic but to be complimentary to democratic and cohesive societies they must be willing to be open to new truths.

For as long as nation-states have existed, national histories have been mythologised to fit the narratives of nationalists, revolutionaries, and leaders.

Modern, functioning, Education, democracy, nationalism and patriotism, require, almost by nature, a willingness to reassess the status quo and, where appropriate, to be critical. For as long as nation-states have existed, national histories have been mythologised to fit the narratives of nationalists, revolutionaries, and leaders. To challenge the mythologised American narrative is not to be anti-American, it is essential. Arguably, true patriotism lies in engaging with the contradictions, the tensions, and often the shame of national histories. National reflection should not be stifled, but rather encouraged.

The Radical Left Trump so bemoans are, in the main, neither radically left-wing nor anti-American. Trump’s disdain for this group, who are both critical of his Administration and of the gross institutional advantages that put him in power, is hardly surprising. However the focus on education is concerning. This Presidency has been devaluing the truth for a long time, the cries of ‘Fake News’ and the agenda against outlets like CNN have been present since the onset, however for children to be miseducated according to his agenda may perhaps be even more damaging.

Ultimately, while political discourse has suffered, adult voters maintain the independence to choose their source. Children in schools do not have such liberty. To fail to educate on the importance of 1619, not just to America’s history but to its present, would be the greater indoctrination; indoctrination into a worldview that centres around the white man, that refuses to accept the truth of continued white privilege and fails to understand the troubling reality of institutional prejudice.

The lack of constitutional authority for these actions and a looming election provide hope that American schools will never see these changes but it is by no means a certainty. Irrespective of where one stands on the truth of white privilege and systemic racism, racism has long proved itself to be ubiquitous, so much so that one should never stop educating.

Image: by The White House via Flickr

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