As a pandemic ravages our country, and economic hardships plague millions of American families, President Donald Trump took to the steps of the National Archives Sept. 17 to deliver a speech on an issue very pressing to him — the 1619 Project. The 1619 Project is a collection of essays that “reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard [the introduction of slavery] as our nation’s birth year.” In response, the president established the 1776 Commission, an educational curriculum premised on ignorance and jingoism straight out of the playbook of dictators like Mao Zedong and Kim Jong Un.
In order to understand the danger of this situation, it is crucial to understand what the 1619 Project is not and what the 1776 Commission is.
The 1619 Project is not anti-American propaganda — full stop. It is a collection of essays that seeks to expand the historiography around American slavery and racism. The essays are rooted in fact. It details our country’s history of racialized slavery, segregation and restrictions on the liberties of Black Americans. It does not seek to call America evil, nor does it seek to call America irredeemable. Rather, the Project is a means to make American history more accurate, and correct a narrative that omits those vast shortcomings.
The 1619 Project is not without controversy from historians. Most of it surrounds one of the essayist’s decision to reframe the Revolutionary War within the context of slavery — which some find to be a negligent oversimplication of a complex event. However, this controversy does not dispute the Project’s overall accuracy, and some of the Project’s main critics still recognize the urgency of historical teachings which accurately portray the role of racism in American history.
The reason that we desperately need work like the 1619 Project is because we must stop false narratives like Trump’s 1776 Commission — revisionist histories which ignore America’s worst moments to blindly celebrate the good.
President Trump’s view of history, as stated when establishing the Commission, is that America’s founding “built the most fair, equal, and prosperous nation in human history." This line of thinking is utter nonsense. For over 200 years, America protected slavery as an institution, and many Americans fought to preserve it. Afterwards, Black people faced and still face segregation, discrimination and racial violence in both the North and South. To deny these facts is improper, no matter how uncomfortable we may feel when we read them.
No matter how much we love our country, we do it and ourselves a disservice when we elect to overlook its misdeeds. We desperately need to revisit historical legacies in this country and develop a more accurate account of history. We must engage with the historical experiences of different groups and grapple with those discomforting truths. That means we have to recognize that America, its founding fathers, and many American leaders are neither perfect nor irredeemable. It means, for example, that we can still respect Thomas Jefferson’s accomplishments without minimizing his ownership of enslaved people.
As someone who loves this country, I feel a compelling urgency to rebut this 1776 Commission, because this nationalistic narrative is dangerous to our democracy. It is an attempt to discredit those who seek political change, and brainwash children into blindly obeying the State they think is perfect. “Patriotic education” is the same term the Chinese Communist Party used when they propagandized their children that China’s oppression of individual liberty is a good thing. The Nazis used their State-written curricula as a form of patriotic education too — they used nationalism to ignore Germany’s failings and scapegoat the Jews for them instead. Patriotic education is also what North Korea calls the proselytization of their leader’s cult of personality, warping history so far as to teach that Kim Jong Il invented the hamburger.
For those that view this 1776 Commission as a meaningless bluff, they ought to be concerned. Trump has already threatened to pull funding to schools that use educational materials from the 1619 Project — an unconstitutional overreach of federal authority. The president has also canceled federal programs highlighting racial injustice, and his supporters actively deny America’s history of continued racial discrimination after the Civil Rights Movement. I see every reason to believe that the president will abuse his powers to coerce this curriculum onto American students — an outcome we should be deeply afraid of.
By seeking to control our education, Trump seeks to further instill a false ideology that denies our nation’s past and instills blind loyalty. It’s a mark of totalitarianism, and goes against every American ideal of liberty that Trump claims to support. We cannot let our democratic experiment be snuffed out by a patriotic education that will teach us not to question our government.
Matt Heller is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.