On Cherry Trees, Donald Trump, and Not Boring Kids With Presidents

When, in 2018, Scholastic issued a biography of Donald Trump (not the book pictured) aimed at 6 and 7 year olds,  there was inevitably an outcry from people affronted that it did not address his most controversial statements and policies.

Scholastic’s CEO defended the publishing house from its critics by slyly offloading responsibility, onto the “thousands” of “educators” (not necessarily all teachers) who had provided unspecified “input” on the book. And he added: “The book presents a simple, factual description of the new president, and is not intended to be a comprehensive review or commentary on his policies.”

You know what?  There’s no such thing as a “simple, factual description” of a political figure that omits major facts about them because they’re uncomfortable or controversial. Such a book is not neutral. It’s not truthful. At the very least, it endorses (by omission of facts) a positive vision of that person that may be at odds with truth, and  tells children what to think before they have the knowledge and experience to think for themselves. 

This controversy should really have called into question why small children are being encouraged to read biographies of presidents as their first exposure to history. 

For years, and maybe still, American children were taught that George Washington was a perfect figure because he confessed to his father that he had chopped down a cherry tree without permission. This actually made for fun for a college history professor. When my students read detailed histories of the late 18th century, and discovered that Washington was a very controversial president in his lifetime, they were stunned. They were even more chagrined to learn that the cherry tree story was total fiction, invented by Mason Weems, a 19th century writer who called himself Parson Weems (because posing as a clergyman is the perfect cover for a charlatan, that’s why), and who wrote highly profitable rubbish biographies of famous figures, Washington being his most famous subject. The critics grumbled, even then, but Weems was a bestselling author.

Popular history’s most grievous sin in the eyes of the American public has never been inaccuracy, but a failure to be entertaining. And so, the cherry tree story migrated into popular lore, and elementary school classrooms. And more Americans by far learn from Hamilton the musical that history is about a few people at the top, than learn from college that history is about all of us.

The cherry tree story, nonsense though it is, is at least entertaining. You most risk harming kids’ incipient and natural interest in the human stories of the past if you try to force them to understand abstract issues before they are developmentally ready. On the streets of Boston, I once witnessed a band of entertainers gamely try to explain the complex political issues behind the American Revolution using hand puppets, and boring their pint-sized (and rapidly dwindling) audience half to death.

Over the years, fourth grade teachers have pressed me to put together a program about the American Revolution for schools. The answer has always been a firm “no”. I am not averse to writing a novel about it for readers in 5th grade and up, but a program is out of the question. How  do you think it will end when a Brit stands up and challenges everything teachers thought they knew about the Revolution, without having time to lay out all the evidence, or the power to demand they read books? Look, I mentioned to kids in passing once that Paul Revere was arrested before he had a chance to tell anyone that the British were coming, only for terrified teachers to approach me afterward to warn me that this conflicted with what was on their tests. The tests, of course, were not on truth. 

I have argued for years that is best not to teach political history in the classroom until students are developmentally ready for complex truths. The case of the Donald Trump biography simply highlights a larger problem: we tell kids that history is mostly about Important People (all men, all, rich, all but one white) Called Presidents, most of whom, honestly, aren’t all that interesting to six year olds. 

You know what six year olds love? The ancient Egyptians. The gory aspects of mummification, which don’t traumatize them, but do confirm their hunch from lived experience that life isn’t always nice. And if kids choose to read about George Washington, or Franklin Roosevelt, or Donald Trump? Then let them. Just don’t be surprised when these books don’t thrill them.

I have huge objections to straitjacket state social studies curriculum (by the way, not all states have it: Pennsylvania doesn’t, for starters) In the UK, my own history teacher, an inspiring and talented man, retired when the National Curriculum was introduced, because, as he put it, “If I can’t teach what interests me, what’s the point?”

State social studies/history curriculum in the U.S. is especially injurious in elementary school, because it is, frankly, incredibly boring, and in some cases, including Georgia’s, makes no sense at all to actual historians. How do I know? A 20th century U.S. historian, a Latin American historian, an African historian, and an early American historian once sat down with the Georgia curriculum and a bottle of wine. And, boy, did they need the wine. They could make neither head nor tail out of the document. Full Disclosure: I was the early Americanist.

Actual historians, like actual teachers, are only brought on to  curriculum committees as window dressing (a role they accept, despite how busy they are, in hope of making a difference, but should refuse because they are inevitably made complicit). There are grounds for hope, but not a lot: America fights its political battles through school social studies/history curriculum, while kids and teens check out and find more interesting things to think about than fakey history designed to save the children/youth/whatever.

Given that, what can any classroom teacher do? I suggest you palm off some of the work to your lovely media specialist colleague and public librarians, and the kids themselves. Together, they can find engaging books on history, fiction as well as non-fiction, that have little or nothing to do with awful prescribed curriculum, books that actually inspire young minds. See what I did there? 

And of course, my own time-travel novels for young readers (upper elementary through adult)  strive to be factual and truthful about the past, while making readers laugh (why, yes, that can be done without plumbing the depths of bad taste). Those of you who have had me present in your school know that I don’t sugarcoat the past, even while remaining age-appropriate, and that while my presentations are always linked to social studies curriculum, they also encourage kids to think more deeply in a broader context. That should always be the goal, not selling kids myths.

Annette Laing, PhD, is an academic historian of early America and the Atlantic World. She was formerly a tenured professor at Georgia Southern University, where she was a member of the department of history and the Africana Studies program faculty. She is the author of The Snipesville Chronicles series of MG/YA time-travel novels.

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