A historian takes on Trump’s view of American history


Edward L. Ayers has some thoughts on that, which he explains below — and it’s really no surprise, given that he is a renowned Civil War scholar who has devoted his professional life to the field and has a very different view than do Trump and his acolytes.

Ayers is executive director of New American History, where he was president from 2007 to 2015. New American History is an online project based at the University of Richmond, designed to help students and teachers see the nation’s history in new ways.

In addition, Ayers has been named National Professor of the Year and served as president of the Organization of American Historians. In July 2013, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony. He is the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming “Southern Journey: The Migrations of the American South, 1790-2020.”

Here are a few other pieces he has written recently for this blog:

By Edward L. Ayers

“We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” President Trump declared in the past week in a speech at the National Archives. “We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”

Such teaching would affirm that the United States stands first among nations in the virtue of its leaders, the genius of its institutions and the purity of its motives. While the nation’s vision and accomplishments rise above all others, this argument goes, its sins are merely those of humankind, for other nations, too, have sustained slavery and killed indigenous peoples.

Advocates of this kind of national history vilify those who deviate from such doctrine as people who hate the United States. They charge that teachers and professors who talk about injustices indoctrinate our young people so that they detest their country. Purveyors of untruth supposedly seek to divide Americans by emphasizing the wrongs of one group against another, by exaggerating supposed suffering and degradation.

For the past half-century, such attacks on “tenured radicals, political correctness, and distorted history” have poured out of op-eds and letters to the editor, out of speeches and official pronouncement, out of tweets and posts. History standards and textbooks have been weaponized for the battle.

Despite the sustained offensive by those who would save America’s honor, the insidious enemy apparently endures, as dangerous today as ever, worthy of frontal attack by the president of the United States and a new 1776 Commission “to promote patriotic education,” to inject an antidote to the “ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.”

These charges concern and puzzle me because they suggest I have been obtuse and perhaps even deluded. As it turns out, I have practiced history for most of the half-century in which these wars over history have been waged — and I have yet to meet anyone who works to destroy the United States. It makes me wonder whether I have been going to the wrong conferences and reading the wrong books, whether I have been left out of exclusive circles where plans are shared.

If this critique had merit, I should have been in the room when the plans were hatched. After all, I sought out the subjects often attacked as the nest of dangerous ideas. I have written books about crime and punishment in the South, about the rise of segregation and disfranchisement, about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Those topics deal with Black people, enslaved and free. They wrestle with lynching and chain gangs. They confront secession and the waging of war against the United States.

I haven’t hidden this work. Over the course of four decades, I have been fortunate to teach thousands of students, to work with museums of many sizes and missions, to help host television and radio shows and podcasts about American history, to work with the National Archives and the Library of Congress, to serve on commissions about African American history and Confederate monuments.

I have done that work because I care about my nation, my people. I do it because I love my native South, where I have chosen to live and to help raise our children. I do it because the United States has indeed been given a great opportunity, enjoyed by few nations in the history of the world, to create its history for itself. To live up to that opportunity, we owe it to ourselves to face the past honestly and fearlessly.

In all that work, I have yet to meet anyone who matches the description posted by the would-be defenders of our history. Instead, I meet people, from all kinds of backgrounds, who care about America, who are fiercely devoted to its institutions, rights and future. I meet people who long to share the freedom of our nation more broadly and more equitably, to explore injustice to lessen injustice.

I do not know where the supposed enemies of the United States must be hiding, how it is that they poison the minds of our young people without being seen or named. Instead, I keep meeting people so devoted to the nation that they spend their lives trying to understand and explain it to the next generation. That seems evidence to me of real patriotism, of true love of country — an effort to interpret our nation’s history guided not by blind defense, but by hard-won clarity and commitment.



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