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Trump's 1776 education plan part of a decades-long, right-wing movement — but scarier

Whether in 1940, 1968 or 2020, this genre of conservative complaint is consistent. Because outrage over a curriculum is almost always a way to target less tangible social and cultural forces.
School children wearing coats against th
School children wearing coats against the cold say the Pledge of Allegiance on Jan. 1, 1953.Mark Kauffman / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images file

“It’s time we learned our children are being taught, in the name of civics, social science and history, doctrines so subversive as to undermine their faith in the American way of life,” said a Republican statesman enraged that in a precarious political moment, public schools were teaching impressionable young children the dangerously unpatriotic lesson that “the American way of life had failed.”

Conservative jeremiads about how progressive curricula corrupt innocent children are fixtures in the history of American schooling.

This is not, however, a snippet of the President Donald Trump’s speech last week at the National Archives, in which he condemned how the “left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies.” This was the complaint of Missouri legislator and later GOP Rep. O.K. Armstrong, arguing in 1940 about “Man and His Changing Society,” a textbook series by progressive educator Harold Rugg that encouraged students to examine “social problems” rather than to uncritically celebrate the past. Printed in American Legion Magazine under the headline “Treason in the Textbooks,” Armstrong’s essay condemning Rugg went viral, at least by 1940 standards.

Trump echoes Armstrong so obviously because conservative jeremiads about how progressive curricula corrupt innocent children are fixtures in the history of American schooling. He specifically took aim at The New York Times' “1619 Project” and college-level seminars in “critical race theory” that “try to make students ashamed of their own history.”

For decades, similar claims have been made about social studies, reading and even sex education curricula. Whether in 1940, 1968 or 2020, this genre of conservative complaint is remarkably consistent: Elevate the Founding Fathers rather than emphasize that they were slaveholders or expropriated Native Americans; celebrate rags-to-riches tales of individual entrepreneurialism rather than persistent poverty; chronicle an uninterrupted forward march of progress rather than dwelling on missteps or decline.

But today’s battle in what I call America’s ongoing “classroom wars” is both the outgrowth of, and potentially far more momentous than, these past skirmishes. What hangs in the balance is not a singular social studies curriculum, but the principle of critical inquiry and our very system of public education.

First, there’s the question of scale: Rugg’s book was taught in hundreds of schools, but except for the magazine’s national push to eradicate it, most battles about the book were waged on the local level. (Meaningfully, Rugg’s books were also often adopted without controversy.) In the late 1960s, sex education curricula similarly became the target of conservatives who argued that such materials would turn American children into slaves to their sexual urges and thus susceptible to Communist recruitment. The claims against these curricula were so outlandish — one prominent advocate received reams of hate mail addressing her as “Misfit Prostitute From Hell” — that the press covered it as a “national controversy.” Yet only a handful of districts even taught such curricula, and only for a few instructional hours a year.

By contrast, the president of the United States, with his 86 million Twitter followers, is spearheading this attack on a core subject area required in every state. Moreover, while exact numbers on adoption of the “1619 Project,” the most explicit target of Trump’s assault, are unavailable, the fact that it is a free, easily disseminated digital product poses an apparently far graver threat than a stack of bulk-order-only, historian-authored textbooks sitting in a warehouse.

Trump’s attack is so pernicious because it’s also not really about history class, as much as my fellow historians and I might like to place our profession at the center of this story.

Trump’s attack is so pernicious because it’s also not really about history class, as much as my fellow historians and I might like to place our profession at the center of this story. Outrage over a curriculum is almost always a vessel for expressing anger at less tangible social and cultural forces.

The “1619 Project” is fodder for Trumpers because it questions the hero narrative of American progress, but also because its editor, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has unequivocally said her goal is to advance the case for reparations for slavery, a plank of the Black Lives Matter movement the right reviles. The fact that it’s a New York Times production also matters: The paper has been blasted by Trump supporters as “fake news” since the 2016 election. Lastly, Trump’s characterization of “left-wing indoctrination” as a form of “child abuse” to which “patriotic moms and dads” must stand up is less undisciplined hyperbole than a deliberate dog-whistle to QAnon acolytes who link liberalism to a network of pedophiles intent on destroying America.

Such sprawling framing has precedent: Back in 1969, when conflicts over sex education, social studies and bilingual education — not to mention desegregation, the sexual revolution and the Vietnam War — were convulsing California, Gov. Ronald Reagan convened a "Moral Guidelines Committee" to “lead California out of the moral decay into which it is descending.” The committee, stacked with Reagan’s conservative allies, was especially preoccupied with how sex education, taught by immoral hippie teachers, undermined parental authority, patriotism and piety.

“They’ve taken God out of the schools and put sex in,” one father lamented in the wake of a 1962 Supreme Court decision that limited school prayer just as sex education programs began to pop up. Progressive education, these activists argued, was at the heart of the nation’s ills and must be stamped out. So appealing was this idea that “I killed progressive education in California!” was a key talking point of longtime state superintendent, and co-convener of the MGC, Max Rafferty when he ran for U.S. Senate in 1968.

Specific texts or curricula don’t much matter in 2020, and rarely have in America’s classroom wars. I am sure Trump, who boasts of loving “the poorly educated” and has reportedly never made it through a whole book, has not read the “1619 Project” or any of the critical race theory literature he so thrills in trashing. He’s actually less self-righteous about this ignorance than some of his predecessors; the American Legion warned the public against reading aloud “the subversive declarations” in Rugg’s books, for fear that listeners might be tempted to embrace rather than condemn them.

The same went for opponents to sex education, who balked at the suggestion they cite specific problematic chapters; just reading open references to masturbation or homosexuality amounted to perversion. In that same spirit, when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz recently condemned the film “Cuties” for sexualizing young girls although he obviously hadn’t seen it, he highlighted the alarming fact that in our current climate a sitting U.S. senator can sanctimoniously demand a federal investigation based purely on hearsay.

This ethos is one major danger of Trump now having public schools in his crosshairs. In 2016, we lost the chance at a president who understood doing her homework as a virtue; in contrast, Trump apparently cheated on his SATs and regularly spreads misinformation, occasionally followed by the nonapology that he actually wasn’t paying attention or didn’t check his sources. Now, Trump wants to institutionalize this aggressive intellectual laziness by making schools sites of indoctrination and accusation rather than education.

As with so many issues, Trump’s brazen opinions aren’t unprecedented; he’s only expressing with more intensity ideas that have long circulated on the right. With the exception of the far-right fringe, however, the conservative combatants in America’s historical classroom wars have all considered public schools worth fighting for. The American Legion strove so hard to root out Rugg’s radical ideas because in 1940, its leadership believed that “at a time when the very existence of our Republic is threatened by totalitarian ideology and aggression, the public schools must be regarded as one of the major arms of our internal defense.”

Trump wants to institutionalize this intellectual laziness by making schools sites of indoctrination and accusation rather than education.

Rafferty may have detested campus activists and progressive educators, but he spent his entire career laboring to build what he thought was a better public education system. Trump, by contrast, has been disparaging the public schools since his inauguration speech, when he called the system one of the most insidious examples of “American carnage” and promptly appointed a secretary of education whose primary credential was undermining the public schools in her home state. This year, he rang in the Fourth of July by calling out the “far-left fascism” of America’s classrooms, and thanks to his inaction, three weeks into September, the majority of students in the country’s largest public education system have yet to enter a school building.

My first reaction when I heard of Trump’s “1776 Commission” wasn’t outrage. It was an earnest, if strategic, hope that whatever his agenda, strapped teachers and professors stand to benefit from any White House resources channeled toward history education. I teach entire courses about conservatism, after all, that impart historical literacy and critical inquiry; in one I even assigned “The Art of the Deal.”

But we must never lose sight of the fact that as Trump rages about “left-wing indoctrination,” he strives only to implement groupthink of his own. And unlike all but the most extreme of his right-wing predecessors, he not only seeks to impoverish our approach to understanding the past. He now seeks to undermine the institutions where, for nearly two centuries, we assumed we could weather the latest classroom war, and even seek to understand it better, together.