Are our students being "brainwashed by leftists"? Or lied to by right-wing propagandists?

Marshall Ward
Marshall Ward
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A delusional, desperate Donald Trump has recently appointed members of his new “1776 Commission.” The mission: to do battle with the “radicals” and “socialists” he says have taken over our schools.

(BTW – With the mixed economy in this country, we are all “socialists” of sorts; we want paved roads, healthcare, a military, and education for our children.)

According to Trump and his minions, students are being “taught in school to hate the US, and to believe that the people who built it were not heroes, but rather villains. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country.”

And of course, that would allow Trumpist Republicans to block the history of the Trump Administration itself – perhaps the most corrupt and lawless administration in our history!

A commission … or propagandists?

There’s nothing wrong with a commission to discuss how we teach and present the past. Nations ought to rethink their history on a regular basis. Americans should discuss where we came from, how we got here, and what we did right and wrong along the way.

But when Trump calls for “patriotic education,” that’s nothing more than propaganda. It’s very much like Chapter 6 “on propaganda and methods” in Hitler’s Mein Kampf;  or like  Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist, controlling the radio to “deprive 80 million people of independent thought” and the search for truth.

Unsurprisingly, the 1776 commission members do not represent a broad mix of scholars but are Christian conservatives, right-wing historians, and Trump Republican loyalists. They include:

  • Chairman Larry Arnn, a Christian college president accused of violating state standards for diversity “because we didn’t have enough dark ones”;
  • Co-chair Carol Swain, who called the Black Lives Matter movement a “very destructive Marxist organization”;
  • Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, that keeps a Nazi-like “watchlist” of professors who “advance leftist propaganda”;
  • Conservative professor Charles Kesler, who called Joe Biden a greasy demagogue; and
  • Historian Victor Davis Hanson, who is the author of “The Case for Trump.”

Get ready for right-wing propaganda on steroids.

Twisting the past into a one-sided story

Additionally, Trumpists have targeted the New York Times’ “1619 Project” on slavery and Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” that they say present the country as “wicked” and undermines the “virtue of America’s heroes.”

Perhaps the template that this commission will try to use is the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). They are best known for erecting Confederate statues across the southern United States, and then fighting to preserve them when people pointed out how racist those statues were and are today.

But the UDC’s other actions had a massive influence on the selection of school textbooks and history curriculums. And, they placed thousands of Confederate flags and portraits in public schools.

They circulated a pamphlet with a list of demands such as: “Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves,” “Slaves were not ill-treated in the South,” and “The North was largely responsible for their [slaves] presence in the South.”

By distributing curriculum guides for decades, the UDC filled schools with textbooks that outright altered the truth about our history generally, and specifically that our Civil War was fought over states’ rights and not slavery.

These false narratives have cemented in generations of minds the idea that they were the ones who understood the truth. The lies continue today with “haughty certainty, an attitude of intellectual superiority, and a total unwillingness to listen to the contradictions inherent in their claims.” We hear all too often “Heritage, not Hate” when they are asked about the Confederate flag or statues.

A better way

Students should learn that the United States stands for freedom of expression, freedom of religion, the expansion of democratic rights, and the rule of law. But they should also be taught that damaging remnants of Jim Crow exist today; we do not have an official religion; women couldn’t vote for our first 140 years; and gay people couldn’t marry in all 50 states until five years ago.

If left up to these propagandists, we will have no more critical discussions on Native American genocide, African American slavery, Jim Crow-era Confederate statues and textbooks, Tuskegee experiments, Japanese internment, and blatant racial voter suppression.

But, if students are instead exposed to debates among serious historians, they will come to see the country as great AND flawed, and its leaders as three-dimensional figures, rather than flat characters representing either good or evil.

One of the commission’s mandates that I think is good is to offer advice on the nation’s 250th anniversary celebration, coming up in just six years.

But on our present course, we’re likely to show up at our anniversary party on the verge of a divorce, more divided than ever about who we are and who we wish to be.

We are a resilient country, but embracing simple-minded propaganda in our classrooms is not the way to figure out our way forward.

Our goal should be to produce students who are critical thinkers, open to competing ideas, used to considering opposing points of view, and reaching rational conclusions.

Then and only then can we expel these propagandists to the dustbin of history.

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Marshall Ward

Marshall taught history and economics for twenty years in Charleston, SC, then moved to Murray, KY, where he taught AP history for seventeen years. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

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