Until the late 1960s, history curricula in Trump’s home state of New York largely adhered to a narrow vision of American history, especially when discussing slavery, the Civil War, and its aftermath. This was true in the predominately white public schools throughout the country. The African American experience and its broader significance received little to no attention. When textbooks did cover black Americans, their portrayals were often based on racist tropes or otherwise negative stereotypes. Trump’s understanding of the Civil War may be out of step with current scholarship, but it’s one that was taught to millions of Americans for decades.
“The dominant story was that secession was a mistake, but so was Reconstruction,” Jonathan Zimmerman, a New York University professor who studies the history of American education, told me. “And Reconstruction was a mistake because [the North] put ‘childlike’ and ‘bestial’ blacks in charge of the South, and the only thing that saved white womanhood was the Ku Klux Klan. When African Americans read this in their textbooks, they obviously bristled.”
African American parents and students emerged as the strongest voices in protesting history curricula. Major black newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the New York Amsterdam News regularly covered new developments in the fight. Civil-rights organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League appointed committees to review textbooks and push back on flawed material. They pressured public officials and textbook publishers to present a more accurate and comprehensive view of black Americans in history.
“For more than 100 years, the American educational system has revolved around four basic R’s—reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and racism,” historian Lerone Bennett Jr. wrote in Ebony magazine in 1967. “By sins of commission and omission, by words said but also by words not said, facts conveniently overlooked and images suppressed, the American school system has made the fourth R—racism—the ground of the traditional three-R fare.”
New York’s schools were no different. A 1957 report found a textbook on the city’s recommended list which, while roundly condemning its violence, said of the postwar Ku Klux Klan, “Its purposes were patriotic, but its methods cannot be defended.”
In 1960, four years before Trump graduated high school, Albert Alexander, a textbook analyst for the New York City Board of Education, complained that publishers had warped their coverage of the Civil War so their products could be sold in both the North and the South. He noted that four of the textbooks used in city schools only referred to the conflict as the “War Between the States,” the segregationist South’s preferred term.
While we cannot know precisely what Trump was taught about the Civil War and Reconstruction, even a terrible education around those issues excuses his positions today. First is the assumption that students listen to their professors and teachers and their views on history are shaped by that. Maybe I’m too cynical after a decade of being a professor, but I think we all question whether our students are actually listening to us. Maybe they are. But in any case, there are many white people of Trump’s generation who went through the same education and do not think as he does. The terrible Dunning scholarly histories and popularized versions of this by Claude Bowers and others definitely had a negative impact, but in many people who are not also racist sociopaths, their influence is more measured. Take this quote from Hillary Clinton last year, from the same article.
Of course, Trump is far from the only American politician with an outdated understanding of the Civil War era. In a January 2016 town hall in Iowa, Hillary Clinton—who is one year younger than Trump—said that had he not been killed, Abraham Lincoln’s more tolerant policies may have hastened national reconciliation, and that what actually happened left white Southerners “feeling totally discouraged and defiant.” My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates noted similarities between Clinton’s statement and the Lost Cause view “that Reconstruction was a mistake brought about by vengeful Northern radicals.”
That was a bad moment for Clinton. It also reflects the more insidious ways that Dunning School history still influences an older generation. I would guess this is a more common way that education has a negative influence. Trump is just a racist.