President Donald Trump recently announced plans for a new commission to support "patriotic education."
“We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” he said. “We want our sons and daughters to know they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world."
The September announcement was criticized as the latest move from the Trump administration to block efforts to educate people about the country’s history of racism — education that, of course, may not elicit warm and fuzzy feelings about America among today's students.
But the news may also have left some people wondering: What is a patriotic education in the first place?
A long history of political education
Patriotic education is a form of political education — essentially, efforts to teach people to love America, and that usually starts with children in schools.
“We use the term patriotic education, but it’s meant different things at different moments in history,” said Charles Dorn, a historian and professor of education at Bowdoin College, as well as the co-author of “Patriotic Education in the Global Age,” which was published in 2018.
Dorn pointed out that public education has long been used as a vessel to inspire patriotism. Consider the Pledge of Allegiance or the American flags flying outside most schools.
Language is another example. Throughout the 19th century, many states permitted schools to teach in the predominant language of their area — in parts of Ohio, home to many German settlers, that meant teachers taught in German. In Louisiana, it was French. New Mexico had a bilingual program of Spanish and English. But at the end of the century, those laws were revoked as part of an effort to create a national identity, he explained.
“The thinking now is that if you’re going to be a good patriotic American, you have to speak American English,” Dorn said.
The U.S. also wanted to “Americanize” immigrants who had begun to arrive from eastern and southern Europe, and the way to do that was through positive stories in history class — think of the tale of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree or the story of the Mayflower triumphantly sailing to Plymouth Rock and marking the birth of a new nation.
“When the president gave his speech at the National Archives (Museum), I had to smile, because engraved on the National Archives building is a quote from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ — ‘What’s past is prologue’ — and I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, not only is it prologue, but it’s prologue again and again and again when it comes to this issue of political education,’” Dorn said.
So what’s the problem?
On its face, the term patriotic education seems harmless enough: There's nothing wrong with patriotism, right? And everyone agrees that education is a good thing.
But experts say that patriotic education has become code for teachings that omit or downplay important parts of history, such as slavery.
What Trump calls "patriotic education" is racist education.
— Ibram X. Kendi (@DrIbram) September 18, 2020
“What Trump calls ‘patriotic education’ is racist education,” historian Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist,” wrote on Twitter.
Jeff Sharlet, an author and English professor at Dartmouth College, wrote in a viral Twitter thread how he studied patriotic education while researching his 2008 book, "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.”
"Patriotic education" is Stephen Miller's fascism + Mike Pence's fundamentalism. Some years ago, I took a course in "patriotic education" for my book THE FAMILY. I spent a season reading its textbooks & talking to its teachers. Here's what to expect... A thread.
— Jeff Sharlet (@JeffSharlet) September 18, 2020
Sharlet called patriotic education a “fundamentalist concept” and described a curriculum that’s based on the notion that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation and proposes that the Constitution is divine and “impervious to expanding ideas of rights.” He wrote that the "patriotic education" course he took focused greatly on Stonewall Jackson, a Confederate general in the Civil War. (A statue of Jackson was removed in Richmond this summer.)
The cultural war over what to teach
Trump has criticicized history courses that cover where America went wrong, saying that anti-racism teachings are “child abuse” and calling out “left-wing indoctrination” in schools.
But teachers say that’s far from what’s happening in today’s classrooms. In fact, many argue that most textbooks used today go the opposite direction and whitewash history.
The process of choosing textbooks is highly politicized and varies by state, but in general, Dorn says the most textbooks are noncontroversial by design, since publishing companies aren’t going to waste money printing textbooks they know state commissions won’t approve.
“You wind up with very long, very boring books that most kids hate reading,” Dorn said. “That is a result of a process that is meant to take any edges off politically. So the idea of liberal indoctrination sort of belies what teachers are doing in schools.”
The White House did not say when Trump would sign his executive order. It's also not clear exactly how the commission would work, since the federal government doesn't control schools; it's up to local government and school boards to decide what to teach.
What does patriotic education look like?
Those who are curious about what Trump means when he says "patriotic education" can look to Larry Schweikart, a retired history professor and co-author of "The Patriot's History of the United States," which is considered a counterpoint to Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." He recently wrote on Twitter that he's among those being considered for a position on the commission.
Schweikart told TODAY in an email that he believes in American exceptionalism, a concept that's key to patriotic education. His approach to history focuses on the claim that the United States began with a Christian, mostly Protestant religious tradition and emphasizes the free market economic system, common law and private property ownership.
Critics say Schweikart's teachings are an oversimplified version of history, and that a focus on exceptionalism can be dangerous.
As far as the "patriotic" part of patriotic education goes, Schweikart provided a metaphor: A man says he loves his wife, but he constantly criticizes her in public and speaks only of her faults, refuses to wear a wedding ring or say in public that he loves her, excuses people who beat her up, among other things.
"Any person who treats his country like that cannot in any sense ever be a 'patriot,'" he said.
Other educators say that loving a country means understanding all of its history, good and bad.
John Hopper, a history teacher and the dean of students at Granada High School in Granada, Colorado, is behind an effort to teach people about Amache, a former Japanese American prison camp in Colorado that few people know.
"It kills me when so many people have no clue it happened," he told TODAY. "Like, you can't erase this from our history. Please don't do this."
He feels the same way about other dark parts of the country's past.
"There's not a country out there that hasn't made mistakes," he said. "But you've got to learn from them. You've got to teach them, so you don't make the same mistake again."