“Accurate” History and the 1776 Commission Report

First, let’s recognize the mundane, yet momentous occasion that happened this week: The Inauguration. Of course, I use mundane lightly, as the ceremony was emotion-filled for so many people. If you missed Amanda Gorman’s poem,  I encourage you to listen to her heartfelt summary of America and American opportunity. Back in October, our blog addressed how the Constitution ensures the peaceful transfer of power. Of course, with the invasion of our Capitol earlier this month, it was not as peaceful as it should have been, but still, Wednesday’s inauguration was ceremonial and a new president took the oath of office (Read it here! (End of Section I) It’s straight from Article II of the Constitution). Power was transferred and our republic moves forward. 

For this (long) blog, though, I want to address a document that was released on Monday by the Trump administration: “The 1776 Report” by The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission. Yes, it is true, as early as Thursday morning, the Biden administration has already removed the report from whitegouse.gov. This means that one of President Biden’s first acts was to revoke the commission. It’s gone. But it’s not.

The sentiments laid out in the 1776 report do not simply die with the presidency that commissioned it, and so, I think it is important for us to understand what it was asking of educators across the country.

First, as one might expect with an American history report coming from the Trump administration, it received a lot of pushback, especially from academic historians. One reason is that there were no academic historians on the commission itself. One historian from Princeton, Kevin Kruse, demonstrated the skewed picture the report, released on MLK Day, painted of Martin Luther King, Jr. James Grossman, president of the American Historical Association (AHA), commented that the report was “a hack job. It’s not a work of history,”  and “It’s a work of contentious politics designed to stoke culture wars.” In fact, the AHA published a statement condemning the report that was then signed by 33 other professional historical associations.

The 1776 report was the Trump Administration’s attempt to counter last year’s “1619 Project,” published by the New York Times, which sought to center America’s hand in slavery into American history. The 1619 Project mostly received praise, with a few exceptions from certain prominent scholars. Analysis of the Project deserves a series of blog posts, so any thoughts on it will be spared from this post.

Today’s blog serves as Thinking Nation’s comment on the 1776 Commission’s Report. The U.S. Constitution, and its principles, are at the heart of our curriculum, and since the 1776 Commission claims the same, it is important to acknowledge both alignment to and departure from our goals for the history classroom.

First, in the introduction, the report states that its purpose is to “enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776 and to strive to form a more perfect Union.” Honestly, beyond the thinly veiled jab at the 1619 Project with the reference to 1776, this purpose seems hard to refute. At Thinking Nation, we want to cultivate thinking citizens and embed Constitutional principles into our historical thinking curriculum. Its intended purpose states the same. Furthermore, the report notes that “To learn this history is to become a better person, a better citizen, and a better partner in the American experiment of self-government.” Partisan squabbles aside, I know of few history teachers would disagree with this statement. Many of us echoed this same sentiment loudly in the aftermath of January 6th’s insurrection. “Our country needs civics,” we cried. “Fund history education!” So far, 1776 Report, so good.

However, the report continuously contends that “The facts of our founding are not partisan. They are a matter of history.” Here, they argue that their report does not have partisan aims, but seeks that “Educators should teach an accurate history of how the permanent principles of America’s founding have been challenged and preserved since 1776.” But who determines what is accurate or which principles are permanent? Surely, a 45 page report cannot summarize an accurate American History? And it doesn’t.

While the 1776 Report claims not to be partisan and to present an accurate view of the past, it cannot honestly reflect on its presentation and come to the conclusion that it lived up to its aims. The report lumps early 20th century “Progressivism” with Slavery, Communism, and Fascism as a “Challenge to America’s Principles.” Of course, since Progressivism is a vital part of American history that has undoubtedly led to needed reform, it is clear that there is a conservative bent to this report. If progressivism is a challenge, then conservatism is the remedy, logic would have it. Partisanship is therefore central to the 1776 report, despite it claiming that “States and school districts should reject any curriculum that promotes one-sided partisan opinions…” Then it might need to reject large swaths of its own report.

There are a slew of historical inaccuracies and evidence-less claims in the report, in fact so many that I spent just as much time annotating the report as I did reading it. But for this blog, let’s continue to focus on big ideas. The last aspect of the report that deserves attention is its answering of these two fundamental questions: What is history? (Our first blog post) and What is the purpose of history education?

Revisiting a quote cited above, the report claims that “The facts of our founding are not partisan. They are a matter of history.” This of course implies a certain definition of history: Past facts = history. But as we demonstrated in our first blog, history is not merely the past: it is the interpretation of the past. Any historian would acknowledge that interpretations can differ, and that is ok. So when a report that bases its entire foundation on history claims that facts are simply “a matter of history,” they narrow our view of a profound and complex discipline. Shortchanging the meaning of history is great for propagandizing a partisan agenda but not so great for illuminating a complex past. 

As to history’s purpose, the report states that “educators must convey a sense of enlightened patriotism that equips each generation with a knowledge of America’s founding principles, a deep reverence for their liberties, and a profound love of their country.” But history education, even civics education, should not be reduced this way. Understanding is the chief goal of any education, but here, the report claims that “a profound love of their country,” is the measure of success. Now, there should be no problem if someone arrives at that love of country through historical and civic study. A case can even be made that it is healthy. But it is not the purpose. History education is not a Sunday sermon, cultivating a particular belief system and fostering devotion to that system. It may have some of the same byproducts as said sermon, but one should not equate the two. Perhaps the simplest rebuttal to the prescribed purpose of education in the 1776 Report is this simple reminder: Our job is to teach students how to think, not what to think. While the report pays lip service to this phrase throughout the 45 pages, it blatantly defies this purpose with its own goals.

The 1776 report claims to offer an “accurate” presentation of history. It fails. While it has certain characteristics that are worth commending, as a whole, it falls far short of its own aspirations. By doubling-down on partisan rhetoric and old views of history that prioritize America’s “greatness” over America’s complexity, it has no place in a history classroom where we want students to think historically, interrogate the historical record, and be equipped to draw evidence-based conclusions. Even though the report itself has been revoked, it’s skewed view of American history will continue to be applauded in many political and educational circles in the coming years. These views are not new. Thus, it is important to engage with them. 

We believe that in order for democracy to thrive, we must cultivate thinking citizens. But the 1776 Report, or the skewed view of history it presents, is not the way to do this.