The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

History educator: Let’s teach as if democracy depends on it — because it does

President Trump speaks at the White House Conference on American History at the National Archives on Sept. 17. (Alex Edelman/Bloomberg)

President Trump’s recent call for “patriotic education” in American schools sparked sharp criticism from educators, historians and others who saw it as the latest assault by conservatives who believe that far-left history teachers are indoctrinating students into hating their country.

For years, Trump and others have decried teaching approaches that abandon the traditional historical focus on the achievements of White men and instead look through a broader lens that includes the struggle for civil rights and the legacy of slavery.

In July, Trump said that very thing:

“Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes but that were villains,” he said. “The radical view of American history is a web of lies, all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.”

Critics say the charge is at best nonsense and at worst dangerous, turning the teaching of history into a culture war.

In this post, educator Noah Zeichner writes about how he is teaching history to his students in Seattle, and his reaction to Trump’s speech about history. Zeichner is National Board-certified social studies and Spanish teacher who was among the 50 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize in 2015.

Much of his work in and outside of the classroom the past several years has focused on advancing global citizenship in schools. He co-leads a team in his district that provides curricular and programmatic support to Seattle’s 10 international schools.

For the past five years, he has coordinated the youth-led Washington Global Issues Network, and he currently serves on teacher advisory councils for the NEA Foundation and the National Geographic Society. You connect with him on Twitter: @nzeichner and find a list of previous publications on his LinkedIn page.

Trump’s assault on America’s public schools: They teach kids to ‘hate their own country’

A historian takes on Trump’s view of American history

By Noah Zeichner

When President Trump announced his plan on Sept. 17 for a commission to promote “patriotic education” and the development of a “pro-American curriculum,” I was nearing the end of my first full week of remote teaching and exhausted. What I heard the president say at his “White House Conference on American History” set off alarms for me about authoritarianism in the United States — and after this week’s presidential debate, I am more concerned.

All social studies teachers at my school taught a common lesson during the first week of classes that was adapted from the Choices Program at Brown University. We asked students to examine an interactive timeline of Black activism from the 1950s to the present day.

At the end of the week, students shared their reflections on events such as, the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, and the 1966 founding of the Black Panther Party. They connected the 1991 police assault of Rodney King to the 2015 founding of the Black Lives Movement after George Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal for the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin.

They discussed how football player Colin Kaepernick’s bending-a-knee protests starting in 2016 in the National Football League evolved to Black Lives Matter being painted on National Basketball Association courts. Finally, they analyzed how the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have led to a new awakening and quite possibly, the largest protest movement in U.S. history.

What would the president think of how more than a thousand students in my school spent their first few days of their history classes?

He would probably say that my colleagues and I were indoctrinating our students to think that “America is a wicked and racist nation,” as he proclaimed in his speech on Constitution Day.

I shared the president’s comments with my students in class the day after his speech. I asked them what they thought he meant by a “patriotic education.”

One student said, “My first thought is that this is propaganda and brainwashing.”

Another shared, “Black history is not specifically taught and so that’s why I appreciate what we’re doing. When people like Trump put [out] patriotic education, it’s blindsiding every other part of history.”

A third student said, “This kind of thing has happened before. Personally, I’m not very surprised. In history classes, it’s everybody’s job to learn the truth. Patriotic education … that’s just nonsense. It’s not going to happen if people have a say about it.” My students quickly saw through Trump’s divisive proclamation.

When I became a teacher, I made a commitment to create an inclusive classroom. The foundation of any teacher’s job is to stand up for their students. This makes teaching, especially in the Trump era, inherently political.

For the past four years, the president has attacked public education by empowering a secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, who has attempted to drain critical resources from the students who need them most. And he has consistently embraced racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and transphobic policies.

In doing so, he has openly threatened the education and safety of millions of students across the country. With his statements about history education last week, Trump politicized teaching even further.

In my first year as an educator, which was 16 years ago, I taught a 12th grade American government class during the 2004 presidential election. I remember thinking that I was supposed to be neutral, and I took pride in knowing that half of my class thought I was voting for John Kerry and the other half believed I supported a Bush reelection. I taught my students how to analyze the issues and to decide for themselves.

That’s what good social studies teachers do, right?

If I were to talk to my first-year teacher self, I would explain what it was like to teach American government during the 2016 election, this time to a class of English Language Learners. Many of my students had undocumented family members and they were terrified by Trump’s racist and xenophobic campaign rhetoric. I didn’t have to reveal how much I disliked Trump to my students. But I made it clear to them that I stood against racism, xenophobia and for human rights. The day after the election, I sat with them as they cried.

During this week’s debate, the president’s calls for a white supremacist group called the Proud Boys to “stand by” renewed my commitment to stand up for my students. And Trump’s rallying of supporters to show up to monitor polling places, an echo of violent white resistance to African Americans voting during Reconstruction, reaffirmed that teaching the history of white supremacy and the struggle to defeat it is more essential now than ever.

I currently teach an International Baccalaureate class called “History of the Americas.” The first unit of the year covers the causes of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

We examine the growth of the abolitionist movement, guided by the voices of Frederick Douglass, David Walker and other Black abolitionist leaders. We read excerpts from Harriet Jacobs’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” to understand her implausible actions of resistance. We examine the ways that formally enslaved people claimed their freedom after the Civil War.

I lean on the excellent Teaching Hard History Framework from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

And I adapt lessons from Rethinking Schools’ “Teaching a People’s History of Abolition and the Civil War” and a “Facing History and Ourselves” teaching unit entitled “The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy.”

The president characterized lessons about the history of racism and white supremacy as a “twisted web of lies” and labeled lessons about systemic racism as “a form of child abuse.” And he saved some of his most vicious attacks for the 1619 Project, the New York Times Magazine special issue published in August 2019, which looks at American history and the legacy of slavery by starting in 1619, when the first Africans landed on American soil.

I was thrilled when the 1619 Project was released. I gathered multiple copies and looked through the curricular materials that the Pulitzer Center assembled. I assigned Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning essay, “The Idea of America,” as we transitioned from Reconstruction to our “Civil Rights and Social Movements” unit. I wanted to students to reflect on how the values stated in the Declaration of Independence have been interpreted throughout history.

The president also attacked the late historian Howard Zinn, calling his work “propaganda” that tries to “make students ashamed of their own history.” That is clearly not the case. Zinn said in a 2009 interview, “We should be honest with young people; we should not deceive them. We should be honest about the history of our country.”

Part of teaching history honestly is exposing students to a multitude of perspectives. As the Zinn Education Project wrote in response to Trump’s attacks last week, “Teaching people’s history is about empowering and invigorating students to better understand the perspectives of workers, women, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, whose voices are too often erased in the corporate-produced textbooks.”

Understanding the honest history of our country is essential to a functioning democracy. But with his proclamation, Trump more resembled authoritarian leaders and right-wing nationalists who also promote “patriotic education” and tendentious ways of viewing history. As Ishaan Tharoor wrote in The Washington Post, educators in Turkey, Brazil, and Hungry have faced similar types of interference in recent years.

It’s also worth nothing that in May 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed legislation that would add patriotism and war history to Russia’s national curriculum. Many on Twitter likened Trump’s proposals to the indoctrination of youth in Nazi Germany.

While the U.S. federal government does not actually have the authority to mandate school curriculums, the president clearly sees the political value of engaging in this type of demagoguery. His mostly White, mostly male base loves it.

I will move forward this school year confident that I am teaching history in an honest and critical way. I agree with educator Cornelius Minor, who tweeted after the president’s speech, “I teach so that our students can make this country what it says it is. Critical, anti-oppressive education is patriotic.”

And I will not be alone. Organizations are speaking up. Teaching Tolerance tweeted: “No matter what the president says, the central role slavery played in the development of the United States is beyond dispute. A truly ‘patriotic education’ requires the courage to confront that history and hold our nation accountable to its promises.”

The National Council for the Social Studies stated:, “Targeting resources that help social studies teachers cultivate more knowledgeable citizens is not the role of the federal government. We stand with all of the schools, school districts, and teachers who use resources like the 1619 Project to accurately depict the history of slavery in the United States, broaden the horizons of their students, and prepare citizens for a just democratic society.”

Now more than ever, teachers must stand together, committed to an anti-racist education. We must embrace ethnic studies and other efforts to teach a history where everyone’s stories and perspectives in our multiracial society are represented, while resisting the autocratic attempts by the Trump administration to hijack our curriculum.

We must work with students, families, and communities to rebuild a post-coronavirus school system that acknowledges and begins to repair the damage done over many decades to students of color and their families who have suffered through whitewashed history courses and racist discipline systems.

We are tired, but we cannot rest.