Many UA Little Rock history professors are in disagreement with President Donald Trump after his statements at the first White House Conference on American History on Sept. 17 over the creation of “patriotic education” and his announcement on the development of a “pro-American curriculum.”
At the conference, President Trump announced that he will develop a grant and soon sign an executive order to establish a national commission to promote “patriotic education” in schools called the “1776 Commission” which will celebrate “the truth about [America’s] great history.”
“We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” Trump said in his speech. “We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”
Trump said in his speech that it is “left-wing indoctrination” in schools that teaches students to think poorly of America, but many history professors at UA Little Rock, including Kristin Mann, a professor who is currently teaching Teaching Applications in History and Social Studies this semester.
“I disagree with the president’s remarks about students being indoctrinated or taught to think badly of their country in schools,” she said. “One of the remarkable things about our country is that we can openly acknowledge and learn about the times when individuals, groups, and national, state and local governments haven’t lived up to the ideals of our Constitution, including things like liberty and ‘equal justice under the law’, as mentioned by the President in his remarks.”
Barclay Key, an American history professor here at UA Little Rock currently teaching US History Since 1877, shares a similar response to President Trump’s speech.
“I disagreed with his generalizations about how history is taught,” he said. “If history classes in Arkansas are the site of left-wing indoctrination, then teachers here are failing miserably.”
Key does, however, agree with one part of President Trump’s speech in which he brought up the critical race theory with a controversial social media post by the Smithsonian Institution, in which the institution quickly apologized for.
“A perfect example of critical race theory was recently published by the Smithsonian Institution,” Trump said. “This document alleged that concepts such as hard work, rational thinking, the nuclear family and belief in God were not values that unite all Americans, but were instead aspects of ‘whiteness.’ This is offensive and outrageous to Americans of every ethnicity, and it is especially harmful to children of minority backgrounds who should be uplifted, not disparaged.”
As someone who teaches students how to teach history to students across the country, Mann has a problem with Trump’s use of the term “patriotic education” when describing how he believes history classes should be taught.
“Words like ‘traditional’ and ‘patriotic’ mean different things in a multi-ethnic, pluralistic society like ours,” she said. “We should be teaching students about both oppression and freedom, about the principles of American democracy, but also about times in which those ideals haven’t been extended to everyone. We teach multiple perspectives on the past and present to prepare students for active participation in our democracy now and in the future.”
Mann also agrees Trump’s criticisms of history education are nothing new and that these types of conversations always come up whenever the country is polarized.
“Because of our Constitution, we can study and learn and protest and criticize freely,” she said. “One of the main purposes of education in a democracy like the U.S. is to prepare students to think critically, to learn about others different than they are, to engage so that they can be informed and participate in civic life.”
The day after President Trump’s speech, Mann had her students in her Teaching Applications in History and Social Studies class read, analyze and discuss the full text of the speech like she does with all pieces of sources and speeches in her class.
“We analyzed his speech looking at the text within the context of the time period in which it was written and the speaker’s position, while also considering the intended audience and the purpose,” she said. “The speech is a product of a specific moment in U.S. History with an election very near, a resurgence in the culture wars, and conversations about whose stories we tell when we teach about our country’s past.”
Mann says that the part of Trump’s speech that generated the most discussion in her class is when Trump brought up the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which is a project that aims to reframe the United States’ history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.
“We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” Trump said. “The left has warped, distorted and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods and lies. There is no better example than the New York Times’ totally discredited 1619 Project. This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. America’s founding set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, secured civil rights, defeated communism and fascism, and built the most fair, equal, and prosperous nation in human history.”
Mann says that all of her students disagree with Trump’s statements; disagreeing with his claims of left-wing indoctrination and his use of the word “truth.”
“I had comments from students like ‘it is important for us to learn about the good and the bad in our history so that we can understand how we got to where we are today,” Mann said. “Several students noted that both freedom and oppression run throughout our history.”
Mann also had her students focus on the part of President Trump’s speech where he said “the only path to national unity is through our shared identity as Americans. That is why it is so urgent that we finally restore patriotic education to our schools.“
“We talked about how, in many other countries around the world, the national government writes national curriculum standards and publishes textbooks and materials, while in the United States, education is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, and is left to local control,” Mann said. “We also discussed what elements of shared identity we think we have or should have as Americans. We talked about how one person’s idea of patriotism can be very different from another’s.”
As for President Trump’s potential executive order to create the “patriotic education” in the class rooms, both Mann and Key feel that it won’t have much affect on the future of history education in America.
“I anticipate that any executive order that he signs will have minimal effects on teaching history,” Key said. “Individual states write curriculum guidelines for K-12 students, and teachers are generally expected to follow them. College instructors have specific objectives to meet for core classes, and US history courses are supposed to include instruction on the Constitution. I’m not concerned about this executive order, except to the extent that an unknowing public might believe what the president says about anything, including the teaching of history.”