Professors criticize Trump’s order for ‘patriotic’ education

Students at Honaker Elementary School in Russel County practice social distancing during the 2020-21 academic year. Photo courtesy of Capital News Service

Sagal Ahmed, Contributing Writer 

President Donald Trump’s administration is expected to come to a close in January following the election of former Vice President Joe Biden, but experts say one of the incumbent’s executive orders could leave a lasting impact on schools.

The 1776 Commission, which aims to give students a “patriotic education,” went into effect on Nov. 2. The executive order states “polemics grounded in poor scholarship” have vilified the country’s founders in recent years and students are now taught anti-American history.

“Despite the virtues and accomplishments of this Nation, many students are now taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but rather villains,” the order states.

Amanda Wintersieck, assistant professor of political science at VCU, said the executive order is a “direct rebuke” of recent nationwide efforts to remove racist language from school textbooks.

Trump criticized “left-wing indoctrination” in schools during a September speech, referencing The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project.” The project recommends reframing public school curricula to focus on slavery and the contributions of Black Americans, starting with the first arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia in 1619.

Amanda Wintersieck. Photo courtesy of Amanda Wintersieck

“Critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together,” Trump said in the Sept. 17 speech. “It will destroy our country.”

Wintersieck said the 1776 Commission aims to portray America’s founders as infallible to students.

“The fact is that many of them were slave owners, and that even many of those that were not slave owners were still OK with the enslavement of African American peoples, or African peoples,” Wintersieck said.

Wintersieck said the measure could discourage speaking out against the country’s mistakes. The professor said Trump is a nationalist who has turned the Republican Party into a party of white extremists.

“That includes some fairly specific tactics to rewrite American history, particularly as it relates to great white men,” Wintersieck said. 

The commission will have no more than 20 members, all appointed by the president. The members will not be compensated, but the commission will be administratively supported and funded by the Department of Education.

The 20 members will produce a report of “core principles” in America’s founding and state how the principles can further “the blessings of liberty” and “a more perfect Union.” The commission will also work with other departments to promote education in national parks, battlefields and other places that relate to the American Revolution. 

In addition, the 1776 Commission mandates educational institutions that receive federal funding to celebrate Constitution Day by holding an educational program for students on Sept. 17.

“We will state the truth in full, without apology: We declare that the United States of America is the most just and exceptional Nation ever to exist on Earth,” Trump stated in a White House press release.

Assistant professor Jatia Wrighten said the measure would strengthen revisionist history, or the distortion of history in a way that drastically contradicts historical records or the general consensus.

“We have a very Eurocentric perspective on American history, and this 1776 commission really is trying to reinforce that,” Wrighten said. “The 1776 Commission, in my opinion, is a thinly veiled attempt to ensure the storyline of white supremacy in this country.”

Jatia Wrighten. Photo courtesy of Jatia Wrighten

Wrighten said there’s been a “push back” in the Trump administration against progressive policies enacted during former President Barack Obama’s term. Notable examples include efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act, a health insurance program that provides coverage for nearly 23 million Americans.

According to the executive order, the commission will be created within the Department of Education on March 2 — more than a month into Biden’s presidency. The commission will terminate in November 2022. 

Once he is in office, Biden will have the authority to review, revise or revoke Trump’s executive orders. Former leaders had the same option; Trump had the ability to review Obama’s orders, and Obama had the ability to review those of former President George W. Bush.

Wrighten said the president likely used an executive order to bypass the House of Representatives due to a lack of bipartisan support for the measure.

“The House is much more representative, in terms of ethnicity and religion and race,” Wrighten said.

Sophomore political science and history double major Nyah Graham said the country’s founders are glorified enough, and Trump has been setting the U.S. back during his administration. 

“It seems Trump’s version of America is rooted in the 1950s,” Graham said. 

Graham said the measure is another way for Trump to deny racism in America. 

“Just because his administration seeks to erase the truth of our nation’s dark past doesn’t mean it’s true,” Graham said. “While we may not have all our problems solved, we must learn from the past, not glorify it.” 

The executive order was a key issue for Graham in the presidential election, she said. 

“If we nationalize our children to an extreme degree, there isn’t telling what could happen, how that could affect issues in the future regarding immigration, foreign relations and race,” Graham said.

Graham said the classroom could become a volatile environment if the measure goes into full effect.

“Open forums for students within the class or in the community are important, and I feel like this just deepens the divisions between students,” Graham said. “It’s very polarizing in terms of red and blue.”

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