I want to talk about two pieces of writing that have appeared online in the last few days. Both focus on the role Thomas Jefferson should play in the way we imagine American history.
One article comes from a very thoughtful historian who wants U.S. history to have something to offer everyone in America. The other is a thinly veiled racist conspiracy theory.
I think talking about them together could be illuminating.
First, in the new issue of the Hedgehog Review, Johann Neem, a historian of education, expresses concern about what he calls “post-American” narratives of United States history. An immigrant from India, Neem discusses his fear that contemporary educators are being drawn to historical narratives denying that American heritage, in anything like its traditional form, can belong to everyone.
Another way of putting this, I suppose, is that Neem takes up the question of whether it’s still appropriate to teach the history—a single inclusive history, handed down from prior generations—of a united American nation. Perversely, Neem argues, some educators may be (accidentally) joining forces with white supremacists by claiming that America has only ever been, and thus can only be, a white nation.
This summer, at Illinois State University, the historian Andrew Hartman organized a graduate seminar around the topic of American history survey courses. He focused especially on “the history wars”: contemporary political debates about how U.S. history should be taught. Most of his students were teachers already working in secondary schools.
Five of these high school history teachers wrote essays that now have been published in the new (fall 2021) issue of Teaching History: A Journal of Methods. Introducing these essays, Hartman explains the assumption and the common reading that underpins the five teachers’ work:
One of the most powerful forms of constructing the American history narrative can be found in surveys of U.S. history, books assigned in high school and college classrooms that sometimes even attract readers beyond the classroom. In short, the course objective was to think deeply about the construction of the narrative of American history by reading, analyzing, and critiquing five of the most popular and intriguing U.S. history surveys, written from a diverse range of perspectives and with distinct objectives. We read, in the following order: Wilfred McClay, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States; Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States; Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom; and Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. We also read the 1619 Project and 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, someconservativeactivists seem to be rallyingaround the “1776 Report” evennow. 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.
At the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, I have a post today about Wilfred McClay’s 2019 United States history survey textbook Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, along with the teacher’s guide co-written by John McBride. My essay is a companion to a more thorough review by Thomas D. Mackie last week.
We wrote our responses independently, but Mackie and I came to similar conclusions about what the book does right, what’s missing from its picture of U.S. history, and what we find strange about its understanding of the history teacher’s job.
The question my response poses, though not in these words, is this: Why do McClay and some other historians seem to think we are “condescend[ing] toward the past” when we teach history as if people made choices, they could have made different choices, others disagreed with their choices at the time, and their choices mattered?
Of all the shameful things about many recent political attacks on The 1619 Project—some of them, more shamefully still, orchestrated by a handful of white historians—is this: Directly contrary to what they claim, The 1619 Project is an explicitly, even militantly patriotic set of documents.
Don’t believe me? Let me quote at length from Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which is the text that most attacks focus on. These passages are crucial to her argument.
My dad always flew an American flag in our front yard. The blue paint on our two-story house was perennially chipping; the fence, or the rail by the stairs, or the front door, existed in a perpetual state of disrepair, but that flag always flew pristine. …
Dad hoped that if he served his country, his country might finally treat him as an American.
The Army did not end up being his way out. He was passed over for opportunities, his ambition stunted. He would be discharged under murky circumstances and then labor in a series of service jobs for the rest of his life. …
So when I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner? I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me.
I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours, that our history as a people began with enslavement and that we had contributed little to this great nation. It seemed that the closest thing black Americans could have to cultural pride was to be found in our vague connection to Africa, a place we had never been. That my dad felt so much honor in being an American felt like a marker of his degradation, his acceptance of our subordination.
Like most young people, I thought I understood so much, when in fact I understood so little. My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us. …
Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all. …
In every war this nation has waged since that first one, black Americans have fought — today we are the most likely of all racial groups to serve in the United States military.
My father, one of those many black Americans who answered the call, knew what it would take me years to understand …
I wish, now, that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people’s ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly, draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag.
We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.
That so many white Americans can read passages like these (or pretend they’ve read passages like these) and think they see an anti-American message, an attack on “patriotic history,” probably says a lot about the true nature of their so-called patriotism.