Memory  /  Comparison

History Bright and Dark

Americans have often been politically divided. But have the divisions over how we recount our history ever been so deep?

For all their thunder about how schools should not make us ashamed of our history, Republican politicians have said far less about what should be taught. But a fascinating, detailed picture of their dream educational agenda is there for the downloading from the website of Hillsdale College.

Hillsdale is a small Christian school in Michigan whose campus has a shooting range and statues of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It is known for its deeply conservative worldview, expressed in online courses that it claims 3.5 million students have taken; in a Washington outpost, the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, which hard-right activist Ginni Thomas helped establish; and in teacher-training seminars, a nationwide network of charter schools, and close ties with red-state governors and education departments. Florida, for example, offers a $3,000 bonus to schoolteachers who take a Hillsdale-designed civics training course. When President Donald Trump, furious at The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project and its portrayal of slavery as central to American history, appointed a 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic education,” its chair was Hillsdale’s longtime president, Larry Arnn. Other Hillsdale alumni were sprinkled throughout the Trump administration.

More recently, Hillsdale officials have been helping Governor DeSantis review textbooks and revise Florida’s school curriculum. When DeSantis appointed half a dozen new trustees of New College of Florida, the honors college of the state university system, whose reputation for liberalism exasperated him, one was a professor and dean from Hillsdale. These trustees ousted New College’s president, and DeSantis’s chief of staff said he hoped the campus would now become a “Hillsdale of the South.”

The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum—which covers American history, government, and civics for kindergarten through high school—is a vast effort to prove that we have nothing to be ashamed of. It totals 3,268 pages at this writing and may be longer by the time you read this, because its creators have been adding new material. It does not take the place of textbooks—although it suggests which to use, repeatedly recommending one by a Hillsdale professor—but it provides teachers with quiz and exam questions, historical documents, and guidelines for what to discuss with their students. (There’s also a separate Hillsdale science curriculum. More about that another day.)