By: Lisa Hoover
President Trump recently called for a “patriotic education” commission and a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to develop a “pro-American” curriculum as part of his Constitution Day speech. He called for the grant to support development of a curriculum that “celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history,” according to Time.
That statement sounds innocuous enough (although I would argue the term “patriotic education” does not) – history classes should teach the truth. Everyone can probably agree on that. The problem is that he seems to want to frame what the truth is and how it is presented. His call for “patriotic education” came after statements about the “radical” nature of history education today and the attempt to “bully Americans into abandoning their values,” according to Time. President Trump said the curriculum would counter the use of critical race theory in teaching, which he called “Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation” that “rewriters American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom,” Fortune reports. All this boils down to an attempt to control what teachers teach and how they teach it.
This is particularly concerning when it’s directed at portraying only a positive view of a particular nation. There’s a nice history of this in politics – it’s called propaganda. Time has a good discussion of other instances like this in American history. They tend to coincide with times of upheaval and unrest.
North Korea pushes “patriotic education” as well. Nazi Germany is well known for this approach to education. The Moscow Times reported similar issues in Russia in 2016. This isn’t company we want to be keeping.
These concerns don’t even touch on the issue of intellectual freedom, which is and should be fundamental to good education and an informed citizenry. We need to encourage more critical thinking, not less. Uncritical hagiography of American history isn’t patriotic. It prevents us from learning from our mistakes and understanding the rich context in which we live. I made a similar argument for the Intellectual Freedom blog in the past regarding censorship and Mein Kampf.
We want students to become well rounded individuals who can reflect on and learn from their own mistakes; how can we ask them to do that if we cannot/will not do that as a country? It is not a weakness to admit past mistakes and problems. Being able to admit them and learn from them is a strength.
And, of course, there’s the academic freedom of the teachers themselves. Anyone can stand in front of a group of kids and recite state approved messages – that’s not what we train teachers to do or what we hire them for. We hire our teachers to show kids how to think critically and for their ability to inspire interest in making the world a better place through discussion and creative assignments. All of this requires academic freedom and critical reflection.
Looking at our history only through rose-tinted glasses is not productive. Only through an honest look at our past can we understand how we got where we are, how to improve, and how to avoid repeating our mistakes. Insisting that we only teach a “pro-American” curriculum cuts off our ability to engage in honest assessment and real learning about our past. There’s a reason the Daughters of the Confederacy worked so hard to change how discussed and taught the Civil War in school.
And, where there is a forcing of a particular perspective in education censorship of reading materials seems likely to follow. Presumably if we control what teachers teach, we’re also going to need to control what they assign for reading – and by extension, what their school libraries collect.
We need to continue to ensure our students have access to and are presented with diverse sources of information and information that challenges the dominant perspective and narrative, both in the curriculum and in the library collection.
How we portray history matters. Let’s encourage reflection as a form of patriotism.
- Coleman, A. (2020) The Civil War Never Stopped Being Fought in America’s Classrooms. Here’s Why that Matters. Time. Retrieved from https://time.com/5013943/john-kelly-civil-war-textbooks/ September 29, 2020.
- Jenkins, A. (2020) President Trump’s “Patriotic Education” Commission Can’t Actually Tell Schools What to Teach. Fortune. Retrieved from https://fortune.com/2020/09/22/trump-patriotic-education-commission-schools-what-to-teach/ September 29, 2020.
- Waxman, O. (2020) Echoing Decades of Fighting Over US History Classrooms, President Trump Announces a Push for “Patriotic Education.” Time. Retrieved from https://time.com/5889907/trump-patriotic-education/ September 29, 2020
- Waxman, O. (2020) Trump’s Threat to Pull Funding from Schools Over How They Teach Slavery is Part of a Long History of Politicizing American History Class. Time. Retrieved from https://time.com/5889051/history-curriculum-politics/ September 29, 2020
Lisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules, Pandora and Nyx and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.