In September 2020, President Trump caused a stir by announcing a 1776 Commission to “restore patriotic education” to US schools. The idea of the national government writing history in such a self-aggrandizing way naturally caused consternation, particularly in left-wing circles. Yet Trump seems to have been responding to similar efforts to rewrite history from the left, particularly the New York Times’ widely criticized and embattled 1619 Project, which dates America’s founding to 1619, with the arrival of the first African slaves, suggesting that racism is inevitably wound into America’s DNA. This is a predictable endpoint of the quasi-Marxist historical scholarship that dates back at least to Howard Zinn’s relentlessly nihilistic People’s History of the United States. So, do we have to choose between a potentially jingoistic “patriotic” slant or the fact-deprived gloom of the 1619 Project?
History should be about what actually happened. But often we don’t know exactly what happened, and have to rely on long-dead witnesses, who wrote with their own agendas. Worse, historians themselves often have their agendas too, which is particularly problematic given the extreme liberal bias in the humanities and social sciences. Very often, our historical narratives tell us less about what actually happened and more about how we want to leverage pseudo-history for political or social advantage today. Both Trump’s 1776 Commission and the 1619 Project can be seen as such efforts. Each side in a culture war attempts to massage history toward its own ends, misinforming students in the process.
A government panel deciding what history is feels creepy, but Trump is right that there is a serious problem, which has evolved over decades, in how academia and education treat history. Part of this involves the angry assembling of everything bad the US has ever done without acknowledgement of its many goods. Zinn’s People’s History is almost a caricature in that the US is portrayed as making exactly the wrong decision in every circumstance. This simply isn’t statistically possible. This creates a phenomenon I refer to as reversed American exceptionalism, wherein our flawed society is held up to standards no culture could ever achieve, then relentlessly savaged for failing to meet them.
We must come to terms with the negative elements of our history, particularly the national shames of slavery and segregation. Yet we must also help students understand that brutal slavery has been ubiquitous across human cultures, and that the US and some European countries were all but unique in lifting themselves out of such systems: the US even fought a bloody civil war over the issue. Slavery and genocide continue across the world today, attracting surprisingly little attention from history’s culture warriors. Of course, slavery and racism are indefensible and America has behaved atrociously on many occasions. But humans worldwide have always treated and still treat one another horrendously. America’s admittedly flawed efforts to rise above this are exceptional. A true history would not minimize our sins both past and present, but nor would it hide our accomplishments.
The framers of the US constitution understood the fragility of republican systems, in which authority and legitimacy come from shared purpose, rather than dictatorial powers. Patriotism is typically the root of this shared purpose, so concerns regarding reduced patriotism aren’t necessarily misplaced. Yet patriotism should not rest upon false premises and bowdlerized history—a house of sand, easily undermined by facts. A true rendering of US history, with both its shameful and glorious moments, would be no bar to patriotism. It would help our citizens understand basic civic values such as free speech and due process, both of which are quickly surrendered by moralistic mobs on both right and left.
One strategic mistake of the far-left was to cede patriotism to the right. Some voices on the left have even wondered whether flying the American flag (or, at least, the early Betsy Ross version) is problematic. This makes the left look unhinged. But, more crucially, it turns national symbols that could unify us at a time of deep divisions into culture war touchstones, further dividing us. Granted, this may be exactly the point—as we see with some far-right groups, who have commandeered everything from the OK hand sign to the American flag, probably in a bid to spark exactly these divisions. But it’s a bad strategy whoever adopts it, likely to do far more harm than good.
Zinn’s People’s History, the 1619 Project and the culture now dominating academia, journalism and human resources departments all bespeak a zeitgeist that encourages deep national humiliation. Perhaps the intent is to burn it all down. Perhaps such activists believe that deep shame is a positive way forward. If so, this is a startling misunderstanding of human psychology. Although some may embrace harsh and rigid ideologies with religious fervor, people generally try to avoid shame and sadness. People don’t naturally embrace things that make them feel bad. This may be why such movements (on both the right and left) often try to force the issue by creating incentive systems based on humiliation, shame and ostracism, rather than attempting to persuade. Embracing a dubious historical narrative of national shame may seem better than life-changing personal humiliation or cancelation.
We might hope that historians themselves would provide the bulwark against bad history and some historians have risen to the challenge admirably in the case of the 1619 Project. However, many of these problems stem from historians like Zinn and as academia drinks more deeply from the well of far-left beliefs, I am not sanguine objectivity will prevail in the near future. Conservatives have contributed to this problem by largely abandoning academia to the left.
So how can we stop far-left propaganda from being repackaged as history? The problem with Trump’s approach is that the government has an obvious conflict of interest when it comes to writing history. The temptation to slip into propaganda will be too great. Unfortunately, Trump seems to be unaware that there’s already a 1776 Unites project, led by mostly black scholars who are also working on a curriculum highlighting black stories, without the pseudo-history and pessimism of the 1619 Project.
Ultimately, academia itself must culturally reform, cease to serve as a form of far-left activism and return to the values of open inquiry, objectivity, data-based assessment and learning for its own sake. The politicization of academia, fueled by the academia’s corporatization that too often treats students as fragile consumers (even though most students neither require or even want to be treated like snowflakes), has damaged the reputation of our learning establishments.
We must rediscover our love of a history that is based on the best reading of what happened, both good and bad. Though we should learn from history, we should look with suspicion on those who would use it for political or advocacy ends—because that would be the death of history.