Social Education 59(1), 1995, pp. 5-7
National?Council for the Social Studies

History Standards and Culture Wars

Gary B. Nash and Ross E. Dunn
"The rages of the ages will inform"

-Thomas Hardy

Nearly everyone knows that National History Standards were created in response to gubernatorial, congressional, and presidential mandates. They parallel new standards released in recent months in the arts, civics, and geography. NCSS has created its own social studies standards. All of these efforts have one thing in common: to provide students with a more comprehensive, challenging, and thought-provoking education in the nation's public schools.
Nearly everyone wants young Americans to learn history in school. And surveys of American parents show that a huge majority want higher standards for teachers and students to take aim at. What is also uncontroversial is that students should confront challenging subject matter, read primary source documents, learn to think and analyze, do plenty of writing, and take responsibility for perpetuating the collective memories of our nation and our world.

So what is all the controversy about concerning two books published in late October and early November-National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience and National Standards for World History: Exploring Paths to the Present? Before examining the controversy, let's specify what the critics have paid no attention to or seen fit to commend:

a) chronological thinking; b) historical comprehension; c) historical analysis and interpretation; d) historical research capabilities; and e) historical issues-analysis and decision-making.
One might hope that the shrill critics of the history standards might notice that these books make clarion calls for active learning and a kind of history that eschews rote memorization. But the controversy is not really about kids becoming better historical thinkers. It's about that perennial topic of public contention-political correctness and multiculturalism. It won't take long for teachers to see that they-and the public-are being misled for political advantage.

As soon as the standards appeared, a small band of critics, led by Lynne Cheney and Rush Limbaugh, decided that these curriculum guidelines (which are not textbooks) were susceptible to charges of multicultural excess and political correctness. Not teachers or historians but talk show hosts and newspaper op-ed pundits have tried to link the standards in the public mind to extreme, left-wing revisionism, hoisting them as a useful political symbol of all things un-American. The bloody flag of political correctness has been dragged into a situation where it really isn't the point. Like taggers in the night, these critics have scrawled "politically correct" across the standards. But few teachers are likely to find that political correctness characterizes these books.

Teachers will need to read the books to see for themselves how they brighten the way to livelier history classrooms at all levels of public education. That's what hundreds and hundreds of teachers (who have actually read the books) say. Here are four points to keep your eye on when you read the books or think about the bombastic critics.

Who Wrote the Books?
The books were created by "a secret group," announced Rush Limbaugh on the radio. Lynne Cheney decided that even if the National Council for History Standards consulted with many groups, they only met "for a few days." In fact, these standards represent a historic collaboration among teachers in the public schools, curriculum specialists, and college historians. Carol Gluck, a Japanese historian at Columbia who was deeply involved in creating the World History Standards, aptly notes that only in a democratic society would anybody imagine that curriculum could be created by consensus. Consensus, as she points out, is not unanimity. But working for 32 months, cranking out five drafts of each book, reporting to a national council of 29 members that met on eleven weekends for a total of 23 days, the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA managed to obtain very broad consensus among 31 organizations as varied as the Lutheran Schools of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Council for Islamic Education, the National Council on Economic Education, the Native American Heritage Commission, the World History Association, the National Alliance of Black School Educators, the National Catholic Educational Association, and many more.

Consensus is hard to buy today, in this country and most others; but by maintaining an open, participatory dialogue, by listening with respect to many points of view, and by involving several hundred eminent scholars and distinguished teachers from all sections of the country, the National Council for History Standards was able to achieve broad consensus. It is this body of scholars and teachers that is being attacked. There was never a "secret group" writing standards in some smoke-filled room.

Political Correctness?
Those who have looked at the standards books will see that the historical understandings and thinking skills that young learners should acquire are presented in a series of shaded boxes, arranged under broad standards statements such as "The causes of the Civil War." Critics have offered virtually no opinions on these major understandings and thinking skills. Rather their fire is concentrated on the "examples of student achievement" that enrich each sub-standard. These exemplars were included to help teachers make the standards concrete, to give them specific ideas for implementing standards. These examples of how teachers might light up classrooms with active learning strategies are spelled out at Grades 5-6, 7-8, and 9-12. For instance: "Analyze maps and photographs of battle scenes in order to explain the nature of the war in Europe [World War I]. Investigate how technological developments employed in the 'Great War' contributed to the brutality of modern war."

By focusing on these illustrative classroom activities, the critics have manufactured a scary, imaginary version of the guidelines that does not remotely exist. They count up names mentioned in the activities, not in the standards themselves, which include very few names at all since they focus on big ideas, movements, turning points, population shifts, economic transformations, wars and revolutions, religious movements, and so forth. By this nose-counting they come to the conclusion that "it's hard to get into the books if you're a white male," as Cheney charges. Or they look for names that are sparingly mentioned or not mentioned at all. In fact, most of the names mentioned are white males in the U.S. book and males of various cultures in the World History book-for the very good reason that males have held political, economic, and cultural power overwhelmingly in all countries. But the critics' combing of the 2,599 examples of student achievement in the two books for "who's hot and who's not", "who's in and who's out," is a deliberate attempt to mislead the public that these curriculum guidelines are textbooks, which of course they are not. The U.S. standards call for studying military leadership, North and South, in the Civil War, but they do not create lists of generals to be studied. Textbooks will provide plenty of material on Lee, Sherman, McClellan, Pickett, and others. Curricular guidelines need not.

Grim and Gloomy?
The critics charge that the U.S. book presents young learners with a grim picture of American history and presents everything that is European and American "as evil and oppressive," to quote two particularly overexcited critics. Cheney points her finger at the attention to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and McCarthyism. Let's look. The former is mentioned in a section on the 1870s, when the KKK took form, and again in a section on the 1920s, when it became a national movement. Well, indeed, the KKK is grim, and, yes, McCarthyism did involve corrosive innuendo that ruined the reputations of many Americans. These are gloomy episodes in American history. But will not American students be uplifted and taught valuable lessons by studying how most Americans put the KKK and McCarthyism behind them? This is not gloomy history but gloomy history overcome. Can our children give to their children the liberty, equality, and justice that we believe our nation is founded upon if they never understand that democracy and justice are defended and preserved only by fighting against those who would trample our founding ideals underfoot?

The critics do not find the U.S. standards celebratory enough; nor do they find the world standards focused singularly enough on Western Civilization. As for the U.S. standards, it escapes them that the book is suffused with American reformism-the enduring quests to achieve the ideals set forth in our founding documents. "What is man born for, but to be a reformer?" said Ralph Waldo Emerson. The critics see a grim and gloomy picture of American history; but thousands of teachers who commend the book see how it demonstrates one of the most important reasons for studying our history: to help students understand how the founding fathers-yes, with all their warts-set forth principles upon which to organize this nation's life. Is it grim and gloomy to say that it has been painful, sometimes bloody, that we have struggled to achieve these principles? Is it inadmissible to say that the agenda set two centuries ago is still not an agenda accomplished in full?

The critics puff that the world history book "gives no emphasis to Western Civilization." They prefer that Western Civilization be the Big Story around which all history, reaching back for thousands of years, ought to be presented to this nation's youth. Such an intellectual position is no longer tenable among the vast majority of either K-12 or college educators. This could never be the basis for developing national world history standards. The principle adopted by the dozens of participating organizations, along with the hundreds of teachers and scholars involved, was a commitment to a genuinely globe-encircling history. The world history standards present large-scale developments that have changed the world we live in today, and they recommend explorations of major traditions of civilization in many parts of the world. Above all, they identify unifying themes that have criss-crossed different societies and peoples and suggest the study of how different parts of the world have been economically and politically interconnected and culturally influenced over the last several thousand years.

In their effort to discredit the world history standards, the critics have made the bizarre charge that they fail "to give any emphasis to Western civilization." In some epochs, western Europe was in fact not the Big Story of all humankind. But the world standards give generous play to European history, while placing it in world context. For example, in their attention to ancient Greece and its achievements (but presented in the context of the Mediterranean world) and especially in their treatment of "the rise of the West" from the 15th century forward, the standards are not politically correct but historically correct. If European history had not been appreciated for its signal importance, especially over the last half-millennium, we could not have gained the support and congratulations of some of this nation's most important European historians. But we received their endorsements also because they appreciated the attention paid to a truly world history that takes account of Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.

These historians-like most teachers-understand that today's students are going to live their lives in an intricately interconnected world and pursue careers in the global marketplace. This requires a fundamental understanding of the forces that have over the long span of time shaped our contemporary world. That means a solid world history education-not a tour of every culture and society but critical inquiry into the movements, trends, conflicts, transformations, and cultural flowerings of greatest import and most enduring significance.

Official History?
The critics fear that the history standards will become "official knowledge," dictating new textbooks and teacher lesson plans. This insults teachers who are stalwartly independent and fully capable of using the voluntary standards as a resource rather than a bible. Will publishers follow the voluntary standards slavishly? Of course not. But even more to the point, the national standards take an explicit stand against any official history. In setting forth the historical thinking skills (rather than rote learning), the standards call for students to "differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations"; they ask students to "challenge arguments of historical inevitability" (one of the most official of all renditions of history); they recommend that students "compare competing historical narratives" and "evaluate major debates among historians"; they urge students to look at all historical eras, movements, and transformations from "multiple perspectives." This is hardly a formula for official history. It invites continued reassessment and reinterpretation of U.S. and world history.

If only the critics understood how history has been taught. It escapes them that the shift toward an inquiry-based education moves this nation's students sharply away from an official history. Until recent decades, historians were drawn mostly from by one slice of American society with the tendency to produce a highly selective and therefore unbalanced version of American and world history. Frances Fitzgerald pointed this out several years ago in her survey of American history textbooks.

It is the rich social history of the last generation that has transcended a semi-official version of American history. These curriculum guidelines invite students to examine newly uncovered chapters of our past and to consider differing perspectives on particular social movements, ideological postures, political changes, and economic transformations. By the same token, this generation's spectacular explosion of research about the world outside of the West has begun to bring into view so much of humankind that has been enshrouded. This nation's new immigrants are reason enough for all Americans to learn about the rich history of the entire human community; moreover, our future as part of a shrinking globe should commend this approach.

Teachers will be the ultimate arbiters of the history standards books. As teachers have always done with curricular materials, they will consult them, assess their value, draw from them what they find useful, adapt their lesson plans, and leave the rest aside. Reasoned discussion among parents, teachers, and all history educators is to be preferred to campaigns of disinformation. To see for themselves, teachers and parents can order the books from the National Center for History in the Schools, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., St. 761, Los Angeles, CA. 90024-4108.

Gary B. Nash is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is Co-Chair, National Council for History Standards, and a Founding Member of the National Council for History Education, on whose Board of Trustees he serves.
Ross E. Dunn is Professor of History at San Diego State University. He is a Past President of the World History Association, and served as Coordinating Editor of the National Standards for World History.