Teaching America’s past with a common goal

Different approaches to U.S. history – from President Trump’s to The New York Times’ 1619 Project – share the same future: instilling critical thinking skills for citizenship.

President Donald Trump speaks on the teaching of American history at the National Archives museum in Washington Sept. 17.

Last week, on the occasion of Constitution Day (Sept. 17), President Donald Trump tried to introduce a new issue into the election campaign: how to teach United States history. He announced the creation of a “1776 Commission” that would “restore patriotic education to our schools.” He wants students to learn “the magnificent truth” of America’s past rather than a new approach in some schools that, he claims, tries “to make students ashamed of their own history.”

The federal government, of course, has very little control over K-12 curriculum in local education. Still, the new commission adds to other recent attempts to influence the teaching of U.S. history.

A bill in the House, for example, would put money toward helping “students confront racism and prejudice in common discussions of literature and history.” On the Senate side, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton proposes legislation to cut funding to any school district that relies on the 1619 Project. That refers to articles in The New York Times from last year that highlight the role of slavery in the nation’s beginnings and that are now being used by several schools as teaching tools. The 1619 Project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, says its purpose is to help Americans “to work to live up to the majestic ideas of our founding.”

Whether schools should emphasize “the magnificent truth” of America’s past (Mr. Trump) or highlight social injustices to further the country’s “majestic ideals” (New York Times) does not seem like an unbridgeable difference for local school boards and teachers. In fact, the teaching of history, along with civics education, often adjusts to current conditions. “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife,” said famed educator John Dewey.

In particular, civics education – or the teaching of the rights and duties of citizenship – seems to be improving. Achievement levels in that topic rose for white, Black, and Hispanic students between 1998 and 2018, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

What can unite different approaches to teaching history is their common focus on instilling critical thinking skills – or the ability to discover and discern the facts and meaning of history.

Mr. Trump, for example, criticized the Smithsonian Institution for recently publishing a description of “whiteness” as an emphasis on “objective, rational linear thinking.” The institution promptly took down the description. And the House funding bill requires anti-racist education to “support critical thinking skills.”

In countries that rely on a system of self-government, training students to be honest seekers of historical truth – to distinguish fact from opinion and to rely on reason to draw conclusions – is a way to uncover and defeat any social ill. History itself shows the power of intelligence to lift up the thinking of society. Those mental faculties have long allowed Americans to face the past, learn from it, and chart a new course forward.

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