“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant, Success in Circuit lies.” This line by Emily Dickinson seems particularly fitting in light of President Trump’s forthcoming executive order: an initiative for “patriotic education” to teach American school children to love their country unconditionally. At a conference given inside the National Archives Museum on Sept. 17, Trump said, “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country.” In summation, Trump wants a flag in every hand, and a book in every can.
Trump wants public schools to focus on 1776 and the Declaration of Independence rather than 1896 and Plessy v. Ferguson. Students would be required to know George Washington rather than the enslaved people whose teeth made his dentures. Trump might test children on Squanto and the first Thanksgiving, while disregarding the Trail of Tears. Trump wants to pick and choose scenes from our history as if he were picking the perfect apple from the barrel, throwing out the rotten and saving the glorious.
While I think it is important for people of any nationality to take some measure of pride in their homeland, teaching innocent school children a sanitized version of history deprives them of the truth, instills the vices of nationalism and fascism, and will ultimately prevent the people of this country from moving forward together.
What Trump does not seem to realize is that a story has good and bad elements to its narrative. The same is true for history. History is the story of a people with noteworthy events from their collective life. History, written well, should show a reader where they came from, and grant them insight into themselves and the human condition. We should learn and read history to know who we really are, not who we imagine we are. By reading America’s history and learning the high and low points, American students should emerge from the past with a better knowledge of themselves for the present and the future.
Rather than fund some “patriot” “education” bill, American funds would be better spent on a wide collection of history books written from a variety of viewpoints. If America is indeed the great melting pot we have been taught to believe it is, then why not adopt a similar approach to our education? Give me your Eric Foner, your Howard Zinn, your Mary Frances Berry, your writing historians yearning for royalties. We need the good and the bad to get the full picture, the whole truth and nothing but.
When education elevates one voice over another, learning for the sake of enlightenment and understanding has ceased. That voice should always be one of truth and fact, but beware when it is not. When that voice declares superlatives, when it decrees one country is better than another as a fact of nature, and when it fails to consider the experiences of others in its discourse, it aims to teach a lesson of singularity, superiority, and domination. That is how nationalism is born, and how nationalism matures into fascism. This country fought in two world wars against nationalism and fascism, and here we are poised to go down the same track as our old adversaries.
As Plato asserted, acquiring knowledge is a painful and irrevocable process. Oscar Wilde said that ignorance is a delicate fruit that, once touched, dies. Therefore, one should close a history book with more knowledge, more understanding than when one opened it. Learning should come from a variety of sources, with attention to how things really were, and emphasize the human experience. An education in history should teach American children that despite all the hardship and pain that exists in our past, the future can be better and brighter for everyone.