Historians and columnists quickly noted the historical inaccuracies and hyperbolic claims made throughout the report. However, my research shows that the “patriotic education” promoted by the 1776 report has many similarities with existing traditional high school civics and U.S. history curriculums throughout the country. My research also suggests that this material can shape whether young people get politically involved.
How the 1776 report’s recommendations echo what’s already being taught
One section of the 1776 report proposes ways to “teach Americans about their country,” offering themes that focus on the accomplishments of predominantly White and male historical figures such as Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. That would protect the long-standing status quo in civics courses, which focus disproportionately on the accomplishments of White male historical figures, while downplaying their flaws.
In recent research, I found that White men continue to be the dominant figures in social studies curriculums. States that have high proportions of the nation’s school-age children hold considerable sway over textbook publishers. In particular, Texas’s sometimes controversial standards often influence what textbook publishers will release. The Lone Star state’s 2005 standards for U.S. government and U.S. history textbooks explicitly required mention of 34 historical figures. Of those, 31 were White men, one a White woman (Susan B. Anthony), and two were Black men (W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King).
Of the 59 figures mentioned in the revised standards used in 2018, 49 were White men, two were White women (Anthony and Betty Friedan), four were Black men (Du Bois, King, Marcus Garvey and Barack Obama), two were Black women (Rosa Parks and Ida B. Wells), and two were Latino (Hector Garcia and Cesar Chavez). No Latinas, Asian Americans or Indigenous Americans were named in the standards.
Are these emphases merely symbolic or do they affect how students perceive their own potential power?
Throughout the history of public schooling in the United States, going back to the Civil War, politicians and textbook publishers have fiercely debated what should be in social studies courses. Soon after stepping down as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities at the end of 1993, Republican Lynne Cheney characterized the 1994 revised history standards, completed under the Clinton administration, as “the end of history,” because Black historical figures such as Harriet Tubman were mentioned more than “traditional” historical figures, such as Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Two decades later in 2014, Ben Carson, a contributor to the 1776 report and a former Republican presidential candidate, claimed that revisions to the Advanced Placement U.S. History framework were so anti-American that students would “sign up” for the Islamic State.
My research finds that such debates are not only symbolic, but politically consequential. In recent research that I discussed here at TMC last spring, I found that what’s taught in American history can affect high-schoolers’ future political activity. I randomly divided 678 students into two groups and assigned each to read different historical accounts of the abolitionist movement, the formation of the National Farm Workers Association and the resistance to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Though the pages that the two groups of students read looked identical, the text came from different sources. Half of the students read segments from “The American Pageant,” a traditional textbook that serves as a staple in Advanced Placement U.S. History courses. The other half read segments from Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” which the 1776 report explicitly criticized. The latter more thoroughly discusses the roles of women and people of color, and places greater emphasis on social movements and collective action.
After they had read their assigned passages, I asked students how willing they might be to participate in a range of political activities, including voting, protesting, working on a political campaign and engaging in nonpartisan volunteer initiatives.
Reading the more critical text increased students of color’s interest in political involvement. Black and Latino teenagers who read the Zinn text reported greater willingness to participate in protests, voting and campaigning for political candidates than did those who read the more traditional text. Although these texts did not affect how White students intend to participate, it did make them more likely to report that people of color had made important contributions to U.S. history.
In other words, who is represented, and how, in school curriculums affects how young people think about their role within U.S. democracy. Compared with traditional curriculums, which are widely used, the kinds of texts that the 1776 report criticizes can empower young people of color and foster greater empathy among White students. This may explain why some Republicans are opposed to curriculums of this kind.
Why civic education matters
Shortly after being sworn into office, President Biden signed an executive order addressing racial inequity that, among other things, disbanded the Advisory 1776 Commission. But the commission merely promoted accounts of U.S. history that are already widely used throughout the country.
One student in my study said that she liked the Zinn text “because it talks about a whole bunch of people coming together to take action rather than just one hero. It’s saying, ‘Here’s our fight.’” Biden won office in part because of the support of Black voters and organizers. If his administration does wish to promote racial equity, it might consider promoting a more inclusive and multidimensional civic education that acknowledges the contributions of people of color and the democratic importance of collective action.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Ida B. Wells’ name. We regret the error.
Matthew Nelsen (@nelsen_matt) is a postdoctoral scholar associated with the department of political science and the GenForward Survey at the University of Chicago.