Amid the battle over Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s successor, it’s easy to forget that other things are happening out there in the world – and some of them are very troubling.
Consider, for example, President Donald Trump’s effort to determine how history is taught in our schools.
On Constitution Day (Sept. 17, the anniversary of when our founding document was signed in 1787), Trump announced the formation of a commission to “teach our children about the miracle of American history.” Like many who want to ignore systemic racism in the United States, he bemoaned the release of curriculum materials associated with the 1619 Project, the Pulitzer Prize-winning effort launched by The New York Times last year that prods schools to do a better job explaining the role slavery played in the development of our nation.
There are a couple of problems with Trump’s approach, however. One is that we don’t have a national curriculum in this country. State officials work with local public school systems to set educational standards. Local control used to be something conservatives extolled – until some schools started doing things the far-right doesn’t like, such as teaching a more accurate, balanced view of history.
The second problem is that Trump doesn’t understand what history is or what it’s supposed to do. The purpose of history is to relate what happened and why. If we can learn from that or avoid repeating past mistakes, all the better, but the idea is not to mold people into patriots, persuade them to adopt “my country right or wrong” rhetoric or relate “miracle” stories.
Facing history square-on can be an uncomfortable task, but it’s a necessary one. It means that you deal with the good, the bad and the ugly – and that you avoid the temptation to turn famous figures into secular saints. When we talk about separation of religion and government, for example, we must grapple with the fact that many of the same founders who wrote eloquently about human rights and freedoms also embraced slavery and considered Blacks to be 3/5 of a person. Their moral flaws and contradictions are a vital part of the story. Telling that story isn’t meant to take away from their achievements but to remind us that we were a nation birthed in liberty only for some. To deny the stories of those who were not included isn’t teaching history; it’s a whitewash.
Christian nationalists, of course, have their own version of our nation’s founding. Just as creationists decided they were offended by evolution and came up with a fact-free alternative called “creationism,” Christian nationalists have crafted a fictionalized story of America; it’s the tale of a “Christian nation” especially loved by God whose Manifest Destiny was to march from sea to shining sea – and it says little or nothing about the people who were crushed underfoot along the way.
This story collapses because of what it omits. There’s no recounting of how the land originally belonged to native inhabitants or how this allegedly God-ordained expansion was all too often built on the backs of people brought here in chains.
The Christian nationalists’ story – let’s not pretend it’s history – is a tired retelling of simplistic hero stories set against a relentless backdrop of “USA! USA!” chants. Its central claim is that since our “miracle” must have been right, how can we ever have done wrong? This is unsatisfying, and we can hope that our young people will surely know better than to swallow it.
But a better answer would be to make certain they are never confronted with it in the first place by keeping it out of our public schools.