Trump attacks teaching of racism across US history

White House wants ‘patriotic education’ and directly threatens Princeton

September 18, 2020
Source: iStock

Donald Trump has castigated US universities for teaching their students about the enduring role of racism in the nation’s history and has outlined new steps aimed at preventing them from doing so.

Mr Trump, in an address meant to honour the anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution in 1787, demanded that students be given a “patriotic education” that does not cause them “to lose confidence in who we are”.

Among his steps to head in that direction, Mr Trump promised a federal commission aimed at revising the teaching of US history and outlined a grant to a conservative advocacy group to sketch out details.

The Trump administration also began threatening Princeton University with the loss of millions in federal dollars for having admitted publicly that it was trying to fight racism within its structures.

The US Department of Education, in a letter to Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, argued that his pledge – in a routine campus memo outlining diversity efforts – amounts to an admission that Princeton currently violates federal non-discrimination law.

The events came just a few days after Mr Trump confessed to having learned that federal agencies also teach their employees to be aware of racism – and then ordered that such instruction be stopped immediately.

That training is part of what is known as “critical race theory”, a framework arising out of US law schools in the 1980s that recognises the sometimes subtle but pervasive and damaging racial biases that arise out of long-standing social structures and cultural beliefs.

As conservative media began highlighting critical race theory and calling it a major threat to Western civilisation, Mr Trump began complaining over Twitter, and the White House quickly issued a government-wide memo banning its use.

The events are part of broad thrashing about by Mr Trump in recent days as he hunts new opportunities in the closing weeks of his re-election campaign to stoke the racial controversies long understood to be an animating force for his political supporters.

Some in higher education have expressed alarm over the possibility of new federal intrusions into their teaching and research. Others have urged calm, noting that the federal government has little direct authority over curriculum at either the school or university level.

In one prominent protest, the deans of the University of California system’s five law schools wrote a joint condemnation of Mr Trump’s attacks on critical race theory, equating it with Cold War-era McCarthyism. The American Association of University Professors warned of Mr Trump pursuing a white supremacist agenda.

But the American Council on Education, the chief US higher education umbrella group, saw a manageable threat. Those in academia who back Mr Trump in such efforts have little influence among their peers, said Terry Hartle, the senior vice-president for government relations at ACE.

Critical race theory, noted Christopher Marsicano, an assistant professor of the practice of higher education at Davidson College, was far too deeply accepted across higher education to be seriously challenged.

And if the administration tried to force a retreat through regulatory levers, such as the threat of withholding federal dollars, universities almost certainly would fight back and win, Dr Marsicano said.

That might be the type of situation facing Princeton if the Trump administration remains in office long enough to pursue its complaint. The “shocking nature of Princeton’s admissions compel the department to move with all appropriate speed” in considering punishments for the university’s voicing its diversity concerns, Robert King, the assistant secretary in charge of post-secondary education, wrote to Professor Eisgruber.

A Princeton spokesman suggested that the Trump administration misunderstood Professor Eisgruber’s report to the Princeton community. “It is unfortunate that the department appears to believe that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing law,” the spokesman said.

While the Trump administration insists that colleges teach its preferred version of history, it is simultaneously pursuing a policy of withdrawing federal funds from institutions that do not respect free-speech rights.

That effort stems from a Trump executive order last year designed to help conservative speakers win audiences on college campuses. If enforced, Dr Hartle said, it was likely to do little more than encourage pointless litigation because the US Constitution already grants broad free-speech protections that are well understood.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Related articles

Related universities

Reader's comments (3)

It's hard to guess if the author of this piece prefers Trump or Biden, the phrasing is so objective.
Having read the Eisgruber memo, and setting the quite clear attempt at virtue signalling it embodied aside, the US Department of Education is absolutely right to investigate Princeton on the basis of it's contents.
Now I am not an historian, but from my amateur viewpoint, history is full of examples of discrimination based solely on ethnicity. It would be hard to teach the subject without mentioning it.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Sponsored

Featured jobs

Payroll Administrator

Bpp University

Teaching Fellow in Architectural Design

University Of Nottingham Ningbo China

Innovation and Commercialization Manager

Hamad Bin Khalifa University

Deputy Accountant

University Of Pretoria