Despite more years of schooling than ever, Americans are poorly educated about their nation’s history. A 2019 Monmouth University poll found that self-identifying Republicans barely consider George Washington a better president than Donald J. Trump, by a narrow 44-37% margin. Trump could give Washington a run for his money in a GOP primary.
The close call is troubling. While Washington rarely told a lie, President Trump has trouble telling the truth, as conservative political scientist John Pitney details in “Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald J. Trump.” Currently, Trump’s character is on full display as he profits by contesting election results in Georgia and elsewhere.
That Republican voters see Trump as nearly equivalent to Washington is very bad news for our republic. Arguably worse news is that by a 63-29% landslide Democratic voters rated Barack Obama better than the Father of Our Country.
President Obama, who promised Vladimir Putin he would support Russian foreign policy goals in his second term and then delivered on the promise, gets a far higher rating among Democrats than Washington, who against all odds defeated the British, relinquished presidential power, advocated gradual emancipation and eventually freed his own enslaved people, and shepherded the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, arguably the greatest guarantee of liberty in world history.
The views of voters sharply contrast those of historians and political scientists who study presidents for a living. Like other professors, presidency scholars lean left. Nonetheless, in a C-SPAN poll these experts ranked Lincoln first, Washington second, and Obama 12th, shortly after 9th ranked Ronald Reagan. (Full disclosure: I was one of the experts polled.)
Dr. Robert Maranto
Credit: Maureen Downey
Credit: Maureen Downey
Public evaluations of presidents are hardly the only evidence of historical ignorance. Consider The New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project, whose lead author boldly declared her intention to change the conception of our national founding from 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed to 1619 when enslaved Africans arrived on our shores. As historians have shown, 1619 gets numerous facts wrong by both omission and commission. Empirically, it is the leftist equivalent of creation science. Even a 1619 Project fact-checker and professional historian lamented its many distortions, which she was unable to block.
If 1619 is accurate history, then Donald Trump, who declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy for his companies six times, is a great businessman. Unfortunately, 1619-inspired curricula have been adopted in school districts across the country, demonstrating indifference to facts on the part of many education leaders.
This deemphasis of facts dates back a century. Ever since the National Education Association issued the Cardinal Principals of Secondary Education in 1918, public schools have stressed social life, vocation and custodial care of children. The pedagogies taught to future teachers deemphasize knowledge, often portraying facts as bad for kids. In fieldwork, I have often seen education leaders declare that academic content like U.S. history counts less than social priorities like students’ developing their brands on social media. If branding matters most, then Donald Trump and the 1619 Project are models to emulate.
As E.D. Hirsch documented in “The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools” and “The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them,” eschewing factual content has particularly pernicious consequences for low income children, whose parents are less likely to fill in the gaps from weak schooling. This exacerbates achievement gaps.
So far, most research suggests that compared to public schools, private schools prioritize factual correctness over political correctness. This may explain why, even after controlling for a variety of demographic characteristics, private school-educated adults disproportionately opposed Trump in the 2016 election, as my former student Ian Kingsbury showed in a scholarly article. Kingsbury’s results accord with other findings that private schools do somewhat better than public schools at instilling civic values such as tolerance and behaviors like political participation, each bolstered by knowledge of rather than ignorance about American history and institutions.
Preparation for citizenship is a key goal of schooling, and ironically it is private schools chosen by parents, not public schools governed by politicians, that best safeguard our republic. We in the public sector need to do better.
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