Betsy DeVos, Modern Education Debates, and the Misuse of Dutch American History

On July 14-15, 2019, the Association for the Advancement of Dutch American Studies (AADAS) will meet at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for it’s bi-annual conference. This year’s theme is the history of Dutch American education.

My abstract submission for the conference:

In January, 2017, articles in Politico and Mother Jones established a narrative that Betsy DeVos’ ethnic heritage was the dominant underlying factor that explained her views. These articles begot more articles, more articles begot wordpress comments, wordpress comments begot tweets, tweets begot re-tweets, and so on, such that for a short time in 2017, the history of Dutch American education became a major news story.

The history of Dutch Americans and the history of education in the Netherlands, many observers surmised, explained how DeVos came to her beliefs. This argument, asserted but poorly defended with any evidence, sometimes bordered on a kind of historical determinism in which one’s beliefs are thought to be determined by one’s identity or some environmental factor. I don’t have a political argument here. What I think of DeVos’ politics is immaterial to my purpose here as a historian, which is to rectify errors of interpretation in the history of Dutch American education that appeared in the media in the wake of DeVos’ nomination and eventual swearing-in as U.S. Secretary of Education. I find that media accounts of DeVos in Politico, Mother Jones, the Atlantic, and the New York Times, among other places, oversimplified and misrepresented Dutch American history, sometimes in order to score political points, and often with reckless disregard for the nuances on the ground or the established research on Dutch Americans. I trace the story of how the media handled DeVos’ ethnic background, I show where they seem to have made factual errors, and I try to explain what we firmly know about DeVos’ Dutch and Dutch American influences. Finally, I argue that it is the public role of the historian to correct such historical misconceptions, and that we members of AADAS, myself included, missed an opportunity to do so.

(Couldn’t resist picking this topic. This should be a good one, if we all keep it civil.)


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