Trump, Making the Case For History Education

Through embarrassingly inaccurate comments about the past, President Trump is highlighting the critical need for humanities instruction.

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“As we have a language requirement for the Foreign Service, so should we have a history requirement for the White House.”

So said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough during his 1986 commencement address at Middlebury College.

As a high school history teacher, I’m embarrassed for our nation when our commander-in-chief speaks ignorantly of the past — contorting the truth to accomplish political goals or rally his base. Still, through such errors nobody has done more than President Donald Trump to reinforce the importance of history education. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Recently, Trump made a false claim about history when speaking with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In defending new tariffs as a “national security” issue, Trump, in an apparent reference to the War of 1812, asked Trudeau, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?”

A quick overview of the War of 1812, produced by CBS Sunday Morning.

Canada, which did not become a country until 1867, did not burn down the White House — British troops did — and any attempt to pass off Trump’s ignorant comment as a joke is at best juvenile. Our president should know his history to help inform his perspective, or he should hold his tongue.

This was no isolated incident. To mark Black History Month, the president made me wonder if he knows, or even cares to learn, important history. “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice,” he said.

Douglass died in 1895.

President Trump’s Feb. 2, 2017 comment about Frederick Douglass.

If not for Trump’s pattern of showing his lack of history knowledge, it would be easier to forgive this as a slip of tenses.

Last summer, Trump said that had President Andrew Jackson lived longer, the Civil War would have been avoided. “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

However, Jackson died in 1845, a full 16 years before the Civil War. To be fair, Trump acknowledged this fact in a later tweet. Still, even had Jackson lived, or served longer, it’s unlikely that he could have done anything to stem the tide of history. Sure, Old Hickory, a slave owner, likely deserves credit for preserving the union during the “Nullification Crisis” of the 1830s, when South Carolina threatened to secede over federal tariffs, but that doesn’t mean he would have been able to broker peace over the “peculiar instruction.”

Slavery was not the only factor, but even middle school students know that it was the overriding reason for the Civil War. Contrary to Trump’s insinuation, in the decades leading up to the bloody conflict, politicians worked tirelessly to keep the peace with compromise after compromise. War came as the last resort, and it was unavoidable by 1861.

For a man who claims to be at war with the so-called “fake media,” Trump doesn’t shy from creating his own version of the past. This provides fuel for critics, who, with just cause, question the president’s grasp of a host of issues impacting the country today.

David Cutler chats with Putlizer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood the significance of the humanities, American history, and President Trump’s comments about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War.

With Trump’s historical inaccuracies in mind, I spoke with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood

“You can’t explain where we are without having some sense of the past,” Wood said. “The past created the present. What’s unusual is not unique about Trump — he’s just spouting off the top of his head, the way a guy in a bar room might talk. There are lots of people, maybe even educated people, who might think the way he does, but he’s president. He hasn’t learned the restraint that most presidents have. He’s throwing things off the top of his head.”

I don’t wish to spread political vitriol. I have voted for members of both main parties, and I admire Lincoln and Reagan as much as Kennedy and FDR. I wish to make clear that my issue here is not whether I like or dislike Trump and his policies; rather, it’s that I find our president’s understanding (or misunderstanding, as the case may be) of the past worrisome. I’m also hopeful his factual errors will serve as a wake-up call for the importance of quality history education.

On that front, last spring I also connected with Jon Meacham, another Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, who recently released another terrific book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, which gives readers hope for a brighter future.

David Cutler chats with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham about the relationship between journalism and biography, as well as the significance of the humanities.

“I do believe that there’s a utility to looking backward, not as a how-to guide for how to fix the problems of today,” Meacham told me, “but in a diagnostic sense that, in fact, if we understand the complexity of the past, it at least creates a sense of perspective and ability to weigh the relative severities of the crises that present themselves to us.”

I couldn’t put it better myself. Through examining cause and effect, the historian’s craft, I urge my students to form their own views about the past, a process which I hope allows them to put into perspective their hopes for today, as well as the challenges of the future.

In doing so, I’m often reminded of my favorite quotation from John Adams: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

David Cutler’s students debate FDR’s New Deal. Photo by David Cutler.

My students freely debate the merits of past actions and decisions, while keeping in mind the times in which historical figures lived. But certain facts — like slavery’s being the main cause of the Civil War, and that Canada did not torch the White House — are, as Adams put it, “stubborn things.”

Our president would do well to remember as much.

A high school history and journalism teacher from Massachusetts.