Donald Trump wants to sweep away the “web of lies in our schools and classrooms” and replace them with the “magnificent truth” about the US, “the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” This country, he asserts, is the “most fair, equal, and prosperous nation in human history.”
To further that goal, he signed an executive order to create a “1776 Commission,” to promote “patriotic education” in US schools. “The only path to national unity is through our shared identity as Americans. That is why it is so urgent that we finally restore patriotic education to our schools,” Trump said,
Reactions to Trump’s proposed patriotic curriculum have been mixed, with some calling it an “overdue effort” and others indicating that with this notion, Trump “joins dictators and demagogues.” The whole issue is further complicated by Trump’s declared intent to punish schools that teach the New York Times 1619 Project, which some conservatives see as illegal. Meanwhile, Trump’s idea of soliciting a $5 billion “contribution” from the Tik-Tok/Oracle/Walmart deal raises the possibility of “patriotic American education” being funded in part by the Chinese.
Trump seems upset by the 1619 Project in particular and the handling of racism in US history in general. In raising these issues, he wades into a long-standing set of complaints from conservatives about how US history is taught. Critics have long argued, particularly in times of strife and discontent, that schools should do more to inculcate patriotism. But how to make this goal fit with other educational aims.
One of the long-standing holy grails of education is critical thinking. There are plenty of fancy definitions of critical thinking (”Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action”). But it generally involves a couple of features—clear, rational thinking, applied to analysis and evaluation to arrive at a judgment of the issue at hand.
In the classroom, it’s pretty easy to tell when you aren’t teaching critical thinking. If you are trying to herd your students toward a single acceptable answer to the question at hand, that is not critical thinking.
There are times when the single answer is appropriate (”How many branches are there in the U.S. government”). But history is a subject that includes broad vistas of materials that doesn’t yield one single correct answer (”What caused World War I”). As Leslie Harris and Karen Wulf put it in their excellent Politico essay, “History is always in the process of revision through new information and new perspectives.” Americans, when we think about history at all, like to think of it as settled and fixed, but that’s just not so.
Think about a couple that meets, marries, has children, and divorces within a decade. Imagine getting their story from them, their friends, their families immediately after the divorce, and then again every five years or so over the next six decades. The stories will vary based on relationships, new information, and understanding that changes with time. And yet all of the many stories will be at least a little true.
You could sit the children down and tell them, in effect, “This is the only true story about what happened with your parents, the only version of events and judgments about them that you are allowed to believe.” You might even successfully get that single story to stick, for a while. But it will be brittle, and as soon as those children find out that even one detail of it is not entirely true, the rest of the story will be shattered. They will not trust any of it.
History, whether the history of a nation or a family, requires critical thinking. It requires divergent views, re-evaluation of information, new perspectives, growing understanding. And most of all, it requires room for a multitude of judgments to be reached, not just by multiple viewers, but by the same viewer over years and years of their own growth.
If you sit students down and tell them, “This is the only true story of our country, and this is the only judgment you are allowed to reach about it,” you are demanding that they avoid critical thinking in favor of a cramped and meager understanding of their own history. It’s a disservice to the students.
If you are serious about raising students to be independent, critical thinkers, you can’t hit them with curriculum that herds them toward one single conclusion about 400 years of history. A nation’s history, a human life—they are more rich and complex and varied than can be captured by any single perspective. If you are studying history from just one source and just one point of view, you aren’t really studying history at all.
A generation of carefully indoctrinated “patriots” or actual thinkers—you can’t have both. That’s the bad news for the 1776 Commission. The good news is that if you show students the full, rich, varied, complex, sometimes appalling history of their country, and help foster the tools to reflect and think about it, they might reach a mature, deep, realistic affection for the place.