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1776 Report Distorts the Past and Disregards the Truth

The following statement was issued by Henry Reichman, chair of the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and Irene Mulvey, AAUP president. Note: The report was subsequently removed from the White House website.

The outgoing Trump administration's 1776 Report, released on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is an attack on the socially progressive and antiracist goals that King worked toward. The report, which was issued by a commission appointed by President Trump last fall in response to the New York Times's 1619 Project and to racial justice demonstrations, is based on falsehoods but poses as history. It calls for a restoration of “patriotic education”; distorts the history of the United States, particularly regarding race, slavery, and the Civil Rights movement; and compares progressivism to fascism. It has been widely and rightfully condemned by academic and other professional historians. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, spoke for the profession in declaring the report to be little more than an exercise in "cynical politics" that "skillfully weaves together myths, distortions, deliberate silences, and both blatant and subtle misreading of evidence to create a narrative and an argument that few respectable professional historians, even across a wide interpretive spectrum, would consider plausible, never mind convincing."

It seems that no professional historians of the US were involved in preparing the report. The commission was chaired by Larry P. Arnn, president of conservative Hillsdale College; Hillsdale's vice president for Washington operation, Matthew Spalding, served as executive director. Hillsdale has been on the AAUP's list of administrations censured for violations of academic freedom since 1988, a status that the institution proudly accepts.

In addition to its distortion of our nation's past, the report amounts to a full-scale, if rather pathetic, assault on higher education itself, claiming without a shred of evidence that US universities are "hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship that combine to generate in students and in the broader culture at the very least disdain and at worst outright hatred for this country."  In reality, it is the report itself that would impose on higher education institutions a stifling historical orthodoxy, based not on scholarship and expertise, but on partisanship and faith. The report must therefore be understood as the latest in an ongoing assault on knowledge, expertise, and truth itself, decried by the AAUP in its January 2020 statement, In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education. As that statement put it, "colleges and universities are disciplinary, not political, institutions" that exist to serve the common good. The expert knowledge found in the nation's colleges and universities has fueled American progress and "checked ideological fantasies and partisan distortions," providing "a common ground on which those with competing political visions can come together constructively to address common problems. Without expert knowledge, we lose our ability to know the past, to shape the future, and to acknowledge the differences and similarities we share as human beings."

Despite its assault on higher education, the 1776 Report seeks to cover itself with a veneer of scholarship. Yet it fails miserably on that front as well. The report lacks any of the common apparatus of scholarship, including citations to sources.  That absence is telling, given that, as historian Courtney Thompson reported on Twitter, the text is riddled with plagiarized material, some of it self-plagiarized. The discussion questions offered in an appendix, for example, are lifted almost word-for-word from a 2008 book review by a commission member. A student paper, much less a scholarly publication, with similar violations of research standards, might well be open to charges of academic misconduct. 

As historian Heather Cox Richardson concluded, "Made up of astonishingly bad history, this document will not stand as anything other than an artifact of Trump’s hatred of today’s progressives and his desperate attempt to wrench American history into the mythology he and his supporters promote so fervently."  It is widely assumed that the incoming Biden administration will have nothing to do with this travesty. That is for the good, but the new administration should also publicly disavow and repudiate this wholesale assault on historical expertise and on the free pursuit of knowledge and truth. 

Henry Reichman, chair, AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure
Irene Mulvey, AAUP president

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, January 19, 2021