Memory  /  Antecedent

Trump’s Vision for American History Education Is a Nightmare

But it’s one historians know all too well.

From sea to shining sea, historians across the U.S. were doing shots of whiskey, mixing stiff cocktails, and binge-eating chocolate in the middle of the day on Thursday—not to celebrate any sudden interest of our fellow citizens in learning about the American past, but to fortify ourselves to watch the White House Conference on American History. This event—held on Sept. 17 in the great hall of the National Archives building and livestreamed via the White House YouTube channel—was, like all things Trump, part infomercial, part self-indulgent whining, part 1980s nostalgia, and 100 percent anti-intellectual.

The same president who made up a Civil War battle in order to put a faux historical marker on his golf course, whose administration meddles with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to alter or suppress information, and who still denies the truth of climate change, trotted out a panel of quasi-experts, along with two actual historians—and, inexplicably, Ben Carson—to advance two ideas simultaneously. The panel argued the case that American historians (besides them, of course) have abandoned the Enlightenment ideals of the Founding Fathers to engage in free inquiry. At the same time, they proposed that historians should stop examining the complexities of figures from the American past, and instead offer our nation’s children simple heroes they could unreservedly admire. These two ideas are fundamentally incompatible—a fact that didn’t seem to bother the panelists.

We historians who are observing this regime rather than enabling it have long realized that the Trumpian approach to history is a muddle of confused hagiography. But how did Trump find a panel of so-called experts to back him up? As a historian who writes about the field of history’s place in the culture wars of the 1980s, I watched this conference and saw one long exercise in logrolling for the participants’ politically intertwined institutional commitments. They put their reputations as defenders of historical truth on the line for Trump’s sake, and in return they got to shill their publications, their think tanks, and their charter schools.

All of the panelists, as it turns out, were there to promote the adoption of American intellectual historian Wilfred McClay’s recently published American history textbook, Land of Hope—including McClay himself, whose presence on the panel, along with that of Civil War historian Allen Guelzo of Princeton, served as a scholarly fig leaf to cover the naked polemicism of the event.* Theodor Rebarber, a champion of charter schools and a critic of current K–12 approaches to history education, was there to argue that an entire curriculum based on McClay’s book, and funded from a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, should be adopted—if not mandated—in all American schools.