With presidential debate fireworks and the battle to replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it is easy to forget that on Sept. 17, Constitution Day, President Trump proposed something unconstitutional. At the National Archives, where the Constitution is on display, Trump attacked the New York Times’s 1619 Project and other “deceptions, falsehoods, and lies” propagated by “the Left” while promising to create a national commission to foster “patriotic education.” It was in line with other recent Republican actions, including legislation to reduce federal education dollars to public schools that choose to teach the 1619 Project.
These actions are both unconstitutional and threaten to take the painful, fever‐pitch anger of our national politics and inject it into our children’s classrooms.
The Constitution gives the federal government only specific, enumerated powers, and nowhere among them is authority to pay or not pay to advance or impede interpretations of history. It applies even if you really, really hate the hotly contested 1619 Project, which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
Not only do Republicans violate the Constitution with legislative attacks on the 1619 Project, they force all of us into a national, and intensely personal, schooling war.
For some people, the 1619 Project is liberating, revealing the immense but often overlooked suffering and injustice committed against their ancestors, with continued repercussions today. For others, it feels like an attack on them personally and on a country that has its flaws but is grounded in fundamentally good and cherished ideals.
There are also, of course, numerous disagreements about facts and interpretations, as there always are given that no one is all‐knowing. They range from the importance of slavery in economic development to whether a desire to preserve slavery fueled the American Revolution.
Whenever government, which is ultimately backed by a legal right to jail or even kill, decides what should be taught, or what is “right” history, it is a threat to liberty and harmony, as well as truth‐seeking. As illustrated by the Cato Institute’s Public Schooling Battle Map (a repository of thousands of values‐ and identity‐based conflicts), when government requires diverse people to pay for a single school system, it forces them into political combat to determine who will get the education they want, and who will not.
Such combat is not only inherently divisive, the stakes of losing are ultimately inequality under the law. You may, for instance, think your child needs to know about the treatment of people of his or her race over the centuries. Too bad if people with more political power have decided otherwise. You do not get equal treatment.
Zero‐sum conflicts and their aftermath are terrible wherever they occur. But the worst possible battleground, as we are seeing outside of education, is a national one, leaving no one unscathed.
That said, while the immediate threat is Republicans like Trump going too far in attacking the 1619 Project and promoting essentially “official” history, both parties bear huge responsibility for where we are today.
The first major federal foray into education was driven by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, who spearheaded the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that pushed federal money (the lever to exert power) into schools. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Republicans drove things, ramping up national testing under President Ronald Reagan and creating national education goals and curricular standards under President George H.W. Bush, then carried on by Democratic President Bill Clinton. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which held schools “accountable” with mandatory state standardized testing, was bipartisan, and the Common Core national curricular standards of the 2010s had Republican and Democratic supporters.
By shoving aside the Constitution, both major parties have put us on the brink of federal control of how our national story is told. Such control by government, not people freely exchanging and debating ideas, cannot be allowed. For the sake of peace, equality, and the rule of law, federal politicians must stay out of America’s history classes.