Photo of American flag taken from Mike Mozart, “JeepersMedia,” on Creative Commons.
On Thursday, Sept. 17, President Donald Trump announced his desire to convert the public schooling system to a more “patriotic education,” suggesting the use of government funding to develop it. Little of what he proposes, however, seems to be all that different from the education that American students receive today, despite its alarming content.
The president’s painfully unprofessional announcement includes his open condemnation of any criticism of the United States as “toxic propaganda,” “ideological poison” and “… indoctrination in our schools, cancel culture at work or the repression of traditional faith, culture and values in the public square.”
Instead, his purported “patriotic education” would entail a “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history” and recognize the “miracle of American history.”
Perhaps this already sounds familiar to those who attended public or even private school in the United States. You would be forgiven for thinking that. Personally, I find it suspiciously similar to the education I received at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Montgomery County.
A week before Thanksgiving in 2005, St. Mary’s held their annual holiday celebration in a packed gymnasium. While such celebrations are not unusual, my place in one that year still feels plainly uncomfortable.
As part of the kindergarten class, I was dressed as an “Indian,” standing on stage next to 23 other students similarly dressed as either “pilgrims” or “Indians.” What followed was a neutered and blatantly false recreation of the “first Thanksgiving,” performed by children who were around 5 years old, and clearly just doing their best to impress their teachers.
At that age, none of us knew any better. My mother however, did. She knew that the staff of St. Mary’s was more than aware that they were lying to us, and she was furious. Having pursued a degree in Native American studies, the production appalled her, and on numerous occasions she attempted to reason with the faculty.
Her protests of the material were quickly and quietly dismissed as her being “too sensitive.” The show must go on, of course.
But must the show go on, really? This type of disfigured education erases the atrocities committed by white people by recasting a self-serving, fictive narrative that fails to properly acknowledge the mistreatment the United States has inflicted on indigenous communities. Furthermore, forcing schooling systems to teach a heavily distorted narrative attempts to make it nigh impossible to view any part of the United States, including both its history and present, in a critical light.
This veil of historical delusion has been going on far longer than most are willing to admit. In the 1619 Project, a New York Times essay collection, author Jake Silverstein reframes our understanding of U.S. history by countering the long-held belief that the founding of American was 1776, which our current president proudly touts. Silverstein instead refocuses the nation’s history on the suffering and hardship that non-white communities faced, positing that the inception of the United States actually occurred in 1619, when the first slave ship arrived in the British Colony of Virginia.
Silverstein states that in order to accurately understand the origins of our country we must “… place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”
Conversely, Trump regards the 1619 Project as well as any criticism and acknowledgement of the country’s horrifying past as unpatriotic, alleging that it incorrectly teaches that America was built on “oppression, not freedom.” Frankly, this is false, and his determination to erase both the violent oppression and incredible accomplishments of marginalized people in the United States is an affront to the idea of patriotism.
Black Americans were at the forefront of creating our nation and deserve to be included and represented in our history, not omitted. Only when this occurs, and those whose bones still serve as the foundation for this country are finally allowed to reclaim their rightful place in its history, will the United States truly have patriotic education.
If we are to grow as a country and as a community, we must do more than fight back against sterilized and whitewashed “patriotic education.” We must follow the example of the 1619 Project in both the United States’ schooling system and our daily lives.
As we stand in the midst of one of the largest civil rights movements in history, the last thing we should do is push education that further distances the public from the true past and present of our nation.
Written by Rosalee Westwood, Geography & Environmental Studies major, Class of 2021