WASHINGTON — Editor's Note: The video above is from September 2020.
President Joe Biden revoked a recent Trump administration report that aimed to promote “patriotic education” in schools but that historians mocked and rejected as political propaganda.
In an executive order signed on Wednesday in his first day in office, Biden disbanded Donald Trump’s presidential 1776 Commission and withdrew a report it released Monday. Trump established the group in September to rally support from white voters and as a response to The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which highlights the lasting consequences of slavery in America.
In its report, which Trump hoped would be used in classrooms across the nation, the commission glorifies the country’s founders, plays down America’s role in slavery, condemns the rise of progressive politics and argues that the civil rights movement ran afoul of the “lofty ideals” espoused by the Founding Fathers.
The panel, which included no professional historians of the United States, complained of “false and fashionable ideologies” that depict the country’s story as one of “oppression and victimhood.” Instead, it called for renewed efforts to foster “a brave and honest love for our country.”
Historians widely panned the report, saying it offers a false and outdated version of American history that ignores decades of research.
“It's an insult to the whole enterprise of education. Education is supposed to help young people learn to think critically,” said David Blight, a Civil War historian at Yale University. “That report is a piece of right-wing propaganda.”
Trump officials heralded the report as “a definitive chronicle of the American founding,” but scholars say it disregards the most basic rules of scholarship. It offers no citations, for example, or a list of its source materials.
It also includes several passages copied directly from other writings by members of the panel, as one professor found after running the report through software that's used to detect plagiarism.
Matthew Spalding, the panel’s executive director and a vice president at the conservative Hillsdale College, defended the report, saying it calls for “a return to the unifying ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence.” He said in a statement that the report "wasn’t written for academic historians but for the American people, and I encourage them to read it for themselves."
One of the group's chairs, Carol Swain, a former law and political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said that if the commission had been allowed to continue its work, it would have added more members and issued a report with more than just “the highlights.”
“Professional historians take themselves too seriously,” she said in an interview. “I see the criticism as being ideologically driven.”
In documents announcing Biden's executive order, administration officials said the panel “sought to erase America’s history of racial injustice.”
The American Historical Association condemned the report, saying it glorifies the founders while ignoring the histories and contributions of enslaved people, Indigenous communities and women. In a statement also signed by 13 other academic groups, the organization said the report seeks “government indoctrination of American students.”
The sharpest criticism of the report was directed at its presentation of slavery and race. The report attempts to undermine allegations of hypocrisy against Founding Fathers who owned slaves even as they espoused equality. It also attempts to soften America's role in slavery and explain it as a product of the times.
“Many Americans labor under the illusion that slavery was somehow a uniquely American evil,” the panel wrote in the 20-page report. “The unfortunate fact is that the institution of slavery has been more the rule than the exception throughout human history.”
Blight, at Yale, compared it to “a sixth- or seventh-grade kind of approach to history — to make the children feel good.” He added: “But it's worse than that, because it comes out of an agenda of political propaganda.”
The authors argue that the civil rights movement was distorted to advance programs promoting inequality and “group privilege.” It complains, for example, about affirmative action and other forms of “preferential treatment."
Ibram X. Kendi, a scholar and historian of racism at Boston University, called the report “the last great lie from a Trump administration of great lies.”
“If we have commonly been given preferential treatment, then why do Black people remain on the lower and dying end of nearly every racial disparity?” Kendi said on Twitter. “Whenever they answer this question, they express racist ideas of Black inferiority while claiming they are ‘not racist.’”
Other scholars underscored what was left out. The report includes nothing of Native American history, and its only reference to Indigenous people is a racial slur quoted from the Declaration of Independence.
In one passage jeered by historians, the authors draw a comparison between the progressive movement in America and fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said the report is intended to discredit contemporary public policies rooted in America’s progressive reform movement. He worries that, even after Biden dissolved the commission, its report could end up in some classrooms.
“Historians need to be paying attention to curriculum conversations in localities and at the state level,” Grossman said. “The nonsense that’s in this report will be used to legitimate similar nonsense.”
In a public meeting of the commission this month, some members held out hope that Biden would keep the commission alive. But others said they needed to push the report to state and local education officials.
“It’s really going to be up to governors and state legislators and school board members and parents and higher education commissioners even students to take this charge and carry this work forward,” said Doug Hoelscher, a White House assistant under Trump.
After the report was removed from a White House website, some of its authors moved to make it available on conservative websites. In an opinion piece published by the Heritage Foundation, one of the commissioners, Mike Gonzalez, said the members “intend to continue meeting and fulfilling the charges of our two-year remit.”
The report ultimately demands a shift in teaching at schools and at U.S. universities, which the panel describes as “hotbeds of anti-Americanism.” It denounces any teaching that breeds contempt for American ideals, blaming that kind of “destructive scholarship” for the nation’s divisions and for “so much of the violence in our cities.”