I have been reluctant to comment on the “1776 Report.”
If you aren’t familiar with it, this is a document that Donald Trump’s White House published early this week. Signed by the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission—a panel Trump created to promote “patriotic education,” which was given its name in direct criticism of the New York Times’s “1619 Project”—it drew predictable outrage from academic historians.
I wasn’t sure I had anything useful to add to the conversation about it, especially considering that Joe Biden took office only two days later, rendering the “1776 Report” a dead letter. Biden disbanded the 1776 Commission on Wednesday afternoon with his first executive order. (The “1776 Report” was archived as a matter of routine when the new administration took office. It is available in the National Archives’ copy of the Trump presidential website.)
However, some conservative activists seem to be rallying around the “1776 Report” even now. And historians’ responses to the text are unlikely to persuade most American conservatives that anything is wrong with it. In any case, the controversy isn’t really about United States history as such. (I mean, it is, but that’s not why it matters.)
Fundamentally, the “1776 Report” is about America’s history teachers and how they do their work.
When Donald Trump signed the executive order creating the 1776 Commission, he asserted that “many students are now taught in school to hate their own country.” That incendiary statement is the heart of the controversy over the “1776 Report.”
I do have some things to say about that.
On a reasonably objective reading, there are three fundamental problems with the way the 1776 Commission went about its work, plus a major problem with its claims about what American students learn in school. Let me describe these problems one by one.
1. The “1776 Report” is not a report.
Let’s start with the basics. The “1776 Report” is twenty pages long, with another twenty pages of appendices. Some of the text is copied from things the authors previously published. Despite the name, it is not a report. In other words, it does not present any research on the current state of American education or society. No information is being reported.
The document does contain many assertions. The first half of the “1776 Report”—about ten pages of text—comprises a somewhat mystical interpretation of the American founding. It portrays the American nation as an eighteenth-century project launched by brilliant men based on timeless political principles. It is punctuated with non-historical and unfalsifiable statements like “the founders’ principles are both true and eternal” (6) and “It is the sacred duty of every generation of American patriots to defend this priceless inheritance” (10).
These statements may be true, but for the purposes of a report on American history or American history education, they are clearly presuppositions, not conclusions.
This first main section is followed by another six pages of text condemning six specific “challenges to America’s principles”: slavery, progressivism, fascism, communism, and “racism and identity politics.” This part of the document includes assertions like “The Civil Rights Movement was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders” (15) and “Identity politics makes it less likely that racial reconciliation and healing can be attained by pursuing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream for America” (16).
(This is a classic way of confessing, I’m afraid, that the authors have read exactly one speech by Martin Luther King. But let’s move on.)
Some claims like these could conceivably be based on the authors’ research. However, the document does not cite any historical research as a basis for these claims. It does include a lot of quotations from historical figures. But these serve as illustrations of the authors’ claims, not a sound historical basis for them. Responsible historical researchers do not draw conclusions from soundbites. Once again, therefore, the “1776 Report” is not a report.
Now, most of the critical scholarly commentary I’ve seen focuses on those first two sections of the document. Many scholars have attacked the history in the “1776 Report” on both historical and philosophical grounds. But rather than spend time adding to that conversation, I would rather move on to what the document says about the U.S. education system.
The final major section of the “1776 Report,” you see, makes inflammatory claims about America’s teachers and historians. These are assertions that definitely needed careful substantiation if they were to be made responsibly in a public document.
The “1776 Report” claims, for example, that public schools often advance “one-sided partisan opinions, activist propaganda, or factional ideologies that demean America’s heritage, dishonor our heroes, or deny our principles,” and that teachers often “abuse their platform and dishonor every family who trusts them with their children’s education and moral development” (17). It claims that progressive educators “disdain today’s students” and “see only weaknesses and failures [in American history], teaching students truth is an illusion, that hypocrisy is everywhere, and that power is all that matters” (36). It calls universities “hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship” that “peddle resentment and contempt for American principles and history alike” with “deliberately destructive scholarship.” It even accuses universities of causing “much of the violence in our cities” (18). The document was also issued with a White House press release claiming that it refutes “‘re-education’ attempts”—likening America’s school system to a repressive government’s labor camps.
These are not claims to make lightly. Yet the document provides no indication where these assertions originated, no indication that they reflect any firsthand experience, and no evidence at all that they are true.
In that respect, as the historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela pointed out on Twitter, it’s worth comparing this document with a controversial report the U.S. Department of Education released during the Reagan administration.
In 1983, “A Nation at Risk” included a detailed set of findings based on research conducted over the course of several months, including information gathered from more than 200 educational institutions as well as public hearings that collected testimony from many educators and business leaders.
Four decades ago, “A Nation at Risk” was controversial for some of the same ideological reasons the “1776 Report” is controversial. But unlike the “1776 Report,” it was actually a report.
In contrast, the evidence-free nature of the 1776 Commission’s work, combined with its vindictive tone toward educators in general, suggests the authors are ruminating on old culture-war grievances rather than contributing anything new, true, or useful to public discussions of U.S. history education in 2020. Fans of the commission’s work presumably appreciate the “1776 Report” because it restates what they already believed, not because it provides evidence that it is true.
2. The practical recommendations in the “1776 Report” show little awareness of actual educational environments.
If the 1776 Commission’s work is going to shape the work of American school supervisors, curriculum designers, and teachers, it should present recommendations that demonstrate some familiarity with the actual processes and practical challenges of history education.
After all, as the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott pointed out, knowing a set of ideas intellectually is not the same thing as being able to teach them to students as part of a way of life. It is one thing for the “1776 Report” to make statements about American history; it is another thing to give advice for actually teaching it.
Unfortunately, the “1776 Report” shows very little evidence that its authors are familiar with history classrooms—at any educational level.
For example, the “1776 Report” includes the following recommendation for teachers:
Civics and government classes should rely almost exclusively on primary sources. Primary sources link students with the real events and persons they are studying. The writings, speeches, first-hand accounts, and documents of those who were acting out the drama of history open a genuine communication, mediated by the written word, between historical figures and students that can bring to life the past. Primary sources without selective editing also allow students to study principles and arguments unfiltered by present-day historians’ biases and agendas. (38)
Of course, this recommendation is not entirely wrong. Primary sources are precious, and they are at the heart of how I (and many other people) teach—in part because they do help students grasp “the drama of history,” and also because they do give students some freedom to analyze and test concepts themselves.
But it is difficult to see how an effective government class could operate using primary sources “almost exclusively.” Do we expect college undergraduates, let alone middle schoolers, to decipher court cases and administrative reports every time we want to explain a concept? This is a recipe not only for confusion and boredom but also for basic factual ignorance.
Moreover, the notion that primary sources can liberate students from historians’ biases is also, I’m afraid, detached from classroom reality. Just think about it.
As any experienced history teacher knows, to choose a primary source for examination is to make an implicit argument. We choose sources because they matter to some point we’re trying to make. To put two primary sources together in conversation is to make an argument, too. To extract a usable portion from a long book; to use ellipses to make convoluted legal syntax comprehensible; or to set an assignment that sends students looking for primary sources on their own is to make an argument, as well. And responsible educators should see to it that the arguments they’re making with primary sources are grounded in good, up-to-date scholarship, not in their own ideological commitments alone.
At best, to use primary sources “almost exclusively” is to create a classroom where the teacher, with whatever biases they bring in, will be the main knowledgeable source in the room for students to consult.
In other words, in its ignorance of how social studies classes actually work, the “1776 Report” is making a self-defeating recommendation.
Here’s another example. The “1776 Report” proposes a list of model discussion questions that “teachers can use to encourage civics discussion amongst [sic] students” as they examine the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. (These questions were evidently written by commissioner Thomas K. Lindsay, a political scientist who once served briefly as a college president.) Here are three of these discussion questions:
What does the Declaration mean by asserting that all persons possess rights that are not ‘alienable’? Who or what, precisely, can alienate our rights? Are all rights deemed inalienable, or only some? And if the latter, why are they different? …
At the time the Federalist Papers were being written, the new Constitution did not include the Bill of Rights. What are the rights and protections enumerated in the Bill of Rights and how did they come to be amendments to the Constitution? …
What economic conditions make American democracy possible? Could American democracy under the Constitution be reconciled with any and every economic system? Why does the Constitution protect property rights? Why do critics of American democracy such as Karl Marx believe that private property (protected by our Constitution) is the root of injustice? How would Madison and Hamilton have responded to Marx and his followers’ criticisms? (39)
Now, all three of these sets of questions might be very useful to explore as part of a history or government class. But frankly, I’m at a loss to say how a group of teenagers are supposed to sit down with a copy of the Constitution and use it to explain the ideas of Karl Marx to each other. Or how they’re supposed to sit with a copy of the Federalist Papers and deduce the actual chain of events from 1789 to 1791 that put the first ten amendments in the U.S. Constitution. Or how they are going to read a copy of the Declaration of Independence and arrive at the meaning of alienation in eighteenth-century legal jargon through a process of deliberation.
It’s pretty hard to visualize. And that should not be surprising. It stems directly from the third basic flaw in the “1776 Report.”
3. The 1776 Commission did not include anyone with relevant experience in U.S. history education.
The commission had sixteen regular members, plus several ex officio members from the Trump administration. As many academic critics have pointed out, none of these people are historians of the United States. Broadly speaking, instead, the scholars on the commission work on government or law. (Only two, Larry Arnn and Victor Davis Hanson, can plausibly be called historians at all, notwithstanding the White House’s claim that the commission included “some of America’s most distinguished scholars and historians.”) Most commission members are simply career conservative activists.
This lack of U.S. historians is a definitely a problem if the “1776 Report” is to be credible as a discussion of how U.S. history should be taught in colleges and universities.
But there’s a bigger problem, which I haven’t seen discussed much: None of the regular commission members seem to have any substantial connection with K-12 education in U.S. history, either. Even the ex officio members seem to have been chosen almost at random, with the departments of state, defense, the interior, and housing given precedence over the U.S. Department of Education in the masthead.
From an objective procedural standpoint, that is ridiculous.
Once again, a comparison with the Reagan administration’s “A Nation at Risk” is instructive. The National Commission on Excellence in Education, which produced that report in 1983, had eighteen members. By my count, at least three were members of school boards; one was a state education commissioner; two were school principals; one was a city school superintendent; one was a national teacher of the year; and four were college presidents. In short, whatever one thought of their ideological leanings, those were commissioners who plausibly knew what they were talking about when they discussed the U.S. education system. (They also had their own staff.)
Truly, if the White House had wanted the “1776 Report” to be taken seriously, it should not have been difficult to assemble a similarly qualified commission today.
During the last two years, after all, the “1619 Project” has been bitterly attacked by some historians, fairly or unfairly. Late this summer, indeed, the Trump administration’s call for “patriotic” history education was publicly joined by two American historians working at
Gettysburg College* Princeton University and the University of Oklahoma. Would it really have been so difficult to appoint some conservative historians to the 1776 Commission?
Even a purely partisan commission with no ties to mainstream academia could have been filled easily with educators. Anyone who has spent much time around K-12 schools has met talented history teachers with very conservative political views. And the United States has thousands of public school boards stocked with Republican activists, not to mention conservative foundations and think tanks that employ professional education researchers. It would not have been hard to generate at least some small measure of credibility for this document by having it written by people who could conceivably know what they were talking about.
Instead, as the historian Joshua Tait points out in The Bulwark, the 1776 Commission seems to have been led by activist intellectuals representing an idiosyncratic group within the neoconservative movement. “In short,” as Tait writes, “the 1776 Report is simplified West Coast Straussianism with the presidential seal slapped on it.”
This is another way of saying the document is an ideological pronouncement, not any kind of report. And finally:
4. The “1776 Report” leaps to a conclusion about what actual students think.
The three problems I’ve already identified make “1776 Report” unreliable. But there’s an even more important problem with its claims about America’s education system.
Here’s the thing: Even if the “1776 Report” expressed a true view of American history, and even if America’s historians and history teachers were expressing an unfair view of the American past, that still would do absolutely nothing to substantiate what Donald Trump claimed when he created the commission: that “many students are now taught in school to hate their own country.” Or, in the words of the document itself, that our schools “breed contempt for America’s heritage” (34), or that students are “learning to hate one’s country or the world” (37).
Those are empirical claims. If they were true, it would be entirely possible to conduct research—or cite existing research—to prove them, showing what students in American schools or universities think about their country. (It would also be possible to do this for what their teachers think, too.) But the “1776 Report” never makes any attempt, not one, to substantiate its claims about what our teaching leads our students to think or feel.
There’s a theoretical problem there, too, as well as an empirical problem.
Because the 1776 Commission advances a very narrow definition of the United States of America—as a nation invented by specific men according to specific principles in the eighteenth century—and because it views that as the only legitimate definition, the commission apparently cannot imagine that students today might understand, and love, the nation on a different basis.
That is, the 1776 Commission apparently cannot comprehend the possibility, for example, that some students might love the United States precisely because it departed from its eighteenth-century form. Or that some students might understand and love it simply as a living community of people today. Or even that students might face the country’s historical deficiencies with clear eyes as a way to show love for the United States. Or that they might be able to question nationalism itself while still loving the existing American community of human beings. Or that agitating for racial equality in ways the 1776 Commission dismisses as “identity politics” might draw some activist students into a greater love for the country they are trying to change.
All of these are very real ways students can love the United States, and all of them are familiar to many teachers from first-hand experience, but the 1776 Commission apparently could not imagine them as possibilities.
What do these four fundamental flaws mean for the legacy of this document?
I would say that the failure of the “1776 Report,” in the end, is not simply a failure of research or a failure of historical interpretation. That would be bad enough. In the end, the commission’s worse failures are its failure of imagination and failure of goodwill.
The 1776 Commission could have undertaken to chart a course for American history education consistent with conservative values, based on careful reasoning about the current state of our schools. Instead, it chose to vent grievances in a hastily compiled screed. The commissioners could have shown curiosity about the actual state of American history education and generosity toward its teachers and students. Instead, they chose vituperation, writing a polemic designed to confirm party prejudices.
Conceived in bitterness and written in ignorance, the “1776 Report” does nothing to advance its own stated goals. America’s teachers and students deserve better than this.
* Correction: As Scott Hancock points out in the comments, the historian Allen Guelzo now works at Princeton University, not Gettysburg College.
Image: Donald Trump speaking at the White House Conference on American History, Sept. 17, 2020. Official White House photograph by Joyce N. Boghosian, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.