Note: This article is supposed to be read in conjunction with “Review: The 1619 Project.”
By George Gworek
Two weeks prior to the first presidential ‘debate,’ President Donald Trump provided divisive remarks regarding the teaching of American History in America’s public school system. President Trump denounced the ‘twisted web of lies’ being taught in U.S. classrooms, echoing his assertions from an earlier speech on July 4th at Mt. Rushmore. This web was to be untangled by the 1776 Commission, a proposed executive order to promote “patriotic education” within our public schools. The commission ignores legal issues surrounding federal overreach, and reintroduces extensive logistical and analytical issues surrounding the education and interpretation of history to the public sphere. As members of a nation that continues to wrestle and reconcile with its imperial and domineering past the commission reinvigorates discussions regarding the federal government’s jurisdiction over school curriculums, the true meaning of ‘patriotic history’ in America, and the subjectivity and objectivity of history.
The Federal government has always retained minimal involvement in public education, a precedent established and maintained through the 10th Amendment. Rather than mandate specific curriculums or topics at a federal level, the Amendment ensures that these rights are “reserved to the states respectively.” The issue of states rights has been perceived since its inception in 1791. However, this Commission is not the only time in which its sanctity has been challenged. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), passed in 1965, was part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The piece of legislation was the most far reaching federal legislation affecting education ever passed in the U.S. Congress. Emphasizing equal access to education, the act provided federal funding to primary and secondary schools and authorized funds for professional development and instructional material.
In spite of being predominantly part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” this legislation was also passed at the height of the Cold War; the decision was not without political ambition. In 1957, eight years prior to the establishment of the act, the Soviet Union won a crucial battle with the successful launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial earth satellite. This early loss within the space race sparked anxiety that America’s public schools were falling behind. As a result, after winning his re-election in a landslide victory, President Johnson immediately pursued the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Johnson’s move was a bipartisan success, prompted by a common adversary due to the Cold War. Unlike the recent 1776 Commission, the act was also initiated not by the argument of subject matter, but the urge for overall accessibility and success rate. The current issue regarding our schools is not an internal subject struggle regarding the quality of our education, but rather an argument over the correct way to teach subject matter. The issue is politicized in a way that does not put the benefit of our students first, but the agenda of specific political parties first. In addition, the 1776 Commission does not come from the agenda of a reputable social group, such as intellectual, but rather the federal government; it is an attempt to bridge the agenda of our government, an objectively authoritarian measure.
The 1776 Commission is a distinctly political venture, a conservative response to the New York Times 1619 Project, a distinctly progressive project which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the national narrative” (Nikole Hannah-Jones). The project claims that America’s birth began not in 1776 following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but in 1619, when slavery first arrived in Britain’s North American colonies. The Project has been highly criticized by prominent historians and political figures alike for its “displacement of historical understanding by ideology” (Sean Wilentz). These comments made by Sean Wilentz, Professor of History at Princeton University, reflect an ongoing struggle amongst historians and all similar researched based fields of the humanities: personal neutrality (objectivity) and the subjective nature of research and analysis.
Personal neutrality within research methods is the belief that facts should speak for themselves, untouched by interpretation or analysis. Wherever this piece of history comes from within an archive, whether it is a statistic, article, newspaper clipping, etc., it is not the job of the researcher to interpret the piece, rather to objectively view it and provide the subsequent information as stated. The effect of this form of research is the maintenance or perceived maintenance of an ‘accurate’ history, maintaining its integrity and providing a more authentic representation of the past. This integrity protects history from misinterpretation.
However, with the adaptation of personal neutrality comes many logistical issues. It is essentially impossible to be an unbiased observer. Not only is it impossible for someone to be an unbiased proprietor of history, but those who created primary documents in real time were not free of their own biases. Primary documents have strong leniencies in the favors of those who write them, whether that be an individual or an institution. In addition, personal neutrality removes the possibility of fiction from being used as a primary source. The lack of historical authenticity directed towards novels from the same period of time as these primary documents, removes the possibility to learn from subjective analysis of these time periods in the day and age. As a result, we are unable to learn from these pieces of fiction that potentially uncover historical partiality.
Subjective research and analysis attempts to rectify these historical biases, those both within primary documents, and the subsequent ‘personally neutral’ historical rhetoric within research and analytical scholarship. It is pieces such as Nikole Hannah-Jones 1619 Project and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States that are the result of these historical crusades. Subjective analysis can provide light and acknowledgement to periods of history that would otherwise be ignored and glossed over for other events of the time. Subjective research allows historians to analyze primary sources from a more accurate perspective than if they were taken from an objective standpoint. Bringing together historical context and comparing and contrasting primary sources can provide a new and seemingly more accurate narrative of history. More often than not, this history that is uncovered is the history of those that were subjugated and ignored in our high school textbooks, in lieu of more favorable histories to provide a positive American narrative.
However, subjective analysis can be taken too far. Academics like Wilentz, such as Professor Sam Wineburg of Stanford University’s School of Education, argue that research based on subjectivity can perpetrate the same issues which they seek to resolve. Wineburg particularly critiques Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, claiming that the book became the “single authoritative source of history for so many Americans” (Wineburg 2). This issue is not unfounded, as continues to be conducted narratives are subject to change. As new narratives are created, the validity of older ones fall into question, as well, the dominant authoritative sources or our studies will lead to impact our own research. This research will fuel future political ideologies.
The 20th century’s violent relationship with nationalism (as well as the world’s continued difficulty with this ideology) has resulted in a poor public view of ‘Patriotism.’ However, this unfavorable association is primarily due to the failure to distinguish the two ideologies. The difference between the two is characteristically philosophical; they are seemingly two sides of the same coin. For patriotism, there is patria, one’s country; in the case of nationalism there is natio, one’s nation (referring to ethnic/cultural individualism). There is considerable overlap between a ‘nation’ and ‘country,’ however, this gap widens when a state’s ethnicity is less homogeneous. This ethnicity is the basis for nationalism, hence the term white-nationalists being an extreme nationalist group. This is the crowd that Trump panders to as he proposes the 1776 Project—those wanting to maintain, reinforce, and amplify the white-nationalist portions of the United States’ history, while belittling and ignoring the history which does not favor these nationalists’ agenda. However, for a liberal state to work, citizens must understand the national interest as something other than the interest of the state. This is a line currently being misconstrued by the Trump Administration through its proposal of the 1776 Project.
The solution to this issue, with regards to providing a proper lens of history, is a rendered version of ‘political patriotism.’ These varieties of ‘new patriotism’ could provide the unifying function of nationalism while avoiding its emphasis on culture and ethnic identity. The unifying function of this ‘new patriotism’ would be the love of, and loyalty to, one’s political community, laws and institutions, and the liberties and rights which they make possible. The result is the creation of many forms of American Patriotism, the most idealistic of which, confronting America’s history, would be the “Patriotism of Liberty.” This patriotism bonds individuals of the United States not by blood, but by ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ and a love of the institutions that make this possible. These are founding principles not just of the Constitution, but of liberal democracy all over the world. Love for these merits and the institutions that make them possible does not necessitate the endorsement of one’s country or its actions, rather just a love for these specific principles.
This distinction is important as we turn to providing the “Patriotism of Liberty” as a lens for history. America has a long history of not endorsing their own politically patriotic merits, from its major role in the slave trade, to imperialism and colonialism, and 157 years of racial discrimination, subjugation and violence. The protection of this culture is inherently nationalistic. However, with regards to a lens of history, this culture, a culture which sits idly by or endorses such a disregard for America’s founding virtues or merits, is inherently unpatriotic. The 1776 Project is a ploy to protect and reinstate a white-national anthropology, provided under a false narrative of patriotism. A true patriotic analysis of American history, one of “Patriotism of Liberty,” would seek to reconcile with its past providing the basis of American liberties as the driving factor. With such a perspective, it would be inherently unpatriotic and a disservice to ignore or minimize where these liberties fell short. Whether or not the Trump Administration hopes to de-emphasize these values directly is unlikely. It would be at a great political disinterest of Conservatives in America to do so outrightly. However, by intentionally showing disregard for those disenfranchised within history, the Administration inevitably harms and violates these American merits of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The field of history has no illusion of “objectivity,” that is to say the omission of a particular point of view. Any historian is forced to choose from an infinite number of facts. As a result, from its primary sources, to its academic research, history has and always will remain a subjective study. We must be tolerant of the complexity and mess of history, or we will only recreate issues which we have hoped to rectify for future generations. As well, any dominance within a narrative is bound to be detrimental to the study of the subject and will conclusively contain inaccuracies. However, any form of authoritative dominance within the narrative of history will remain inevitable, as no academic nor historical source is free of individual subjectivity. Understanding of this imminent characteristic of history and working with history is being ignored by our federal government with the creation of the 1776 Commission. The Commission does not respect the messy innuendos of the study of history, instead opting for its own authoritative narrative. However, we can mitigate these limitations, or adversely make them entirely transparent through the adoption of historical lenses such as the “Patriotism of Liberty.”
Plotnikoff, David. “Zinn’s Influential History Textbook has Problems,” Stanford Report. Stanford, California, December 12, 2012, news.stanford.edu/news/2012/december/wineburg-historiography-zinn-122012.html.
Primoratz, Igor. “Patriotism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=patriotism&archive=spr2019.
Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “The 1619 Project” New York Times. New York, New York, 2019, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html.
Wilentz, Sean. “A Matter of Facts” The Atlantic. Washington D.C., January 22, 2020, http://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/01/1619-project-new-york-times-wilentz/605152/.
Pelsue, Brendan. “When it Comes to Education, the Federal Government is in Charge of …. Um What?” Harvard Graduate School of Education Magazine. Cambridge, Massachusetts 2017, http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/17/08/when-it-comes-education-federal-government-charge-um-what.
Serwer, Adam. “The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts” The Atlantic. Washington D.C., December 23, 2019, http://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/12/historians-clash-1619-project/604093/.
Zinn, Howard. “A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present” HarperCollins Publishers. New York 2005.