The National History Standards:Time for Common Sense

David Warren Saxe
During the fall of 1994, UCLA's National Center for History in the Schools released three volumes of "national standards" for history, one for grades K-4, another for American history for grades 5-12, and the third for world history for grades 5-12. No sooner had the ink dried on the multi-million dollar project when cries of foul play were heard in loud tones. Even now, over a year later, the consensus appears to be that the history standards are fatally flawed. Nonetheless, with a mixture of anger and apology, NCHS spokesmen Gary Nash and Ross Dunn answered that critics of the standards "paid no attention to" the actual work of the Council, which, according to Nash and Dunn, was intended to help "kids become better historical thinkers." (Social Education, January 1995) To Nash and Dunn, what the shrill critics really had on their minds was that "perennial topic of public contention-political correctness and multiculturalism."
Nash and Dunn could not be more right (no ideological pun intended). What escaped Nash, Dunn, and the others at NCHS was very simple: a distorted history steeped in political correctness and multiculturalism (Belz 1995) was unacceptable.

With all the flak since their release, the NCHS has agreed to revisit the history standards. But the standards probably received their coup de grace with the January 18, 1995 vote of the United States Senate condemning them by 99 votes to 1. In the spring of 1995, Congress took further action to reject the entire concept of national standards for all subject areas. As a result of the intense condemnation of the history standards, a chasm of unknown proportions has been exposed between the liberal educational establishment and conservatives rejecting the standards. Yet the authors of the standards really have not answered the question as to why the standards writing became such a left-of-center academic exercise.

We need to examine the standards themselves in order to ascertain if the critiques are warranted. Just what is so objectionable about the history standards anyway? First of all, to work in schools the history standards must not only reflect good history, but teachers must also be able to recognize that the standards are good. The term "good history" is no semantic or ideological trap here. Most teachers can pragmatically cut quickly through stuffy arguments over what academics tell them is or is not good history. For the harried social studies teachers with one hundred or more ever challenging, with-it students, two or three preps a day, hall duty and a twenty-minute lunch, not to mention after-school clubs and coaching, and of course their own families and lives, there is not the time or inclination to filter through the layers of argument. The key question for these over-worked teachers is simple: what do these standards do that I am not already doing and how would adopting these standards make my work more engaging, thorough, and/or efficient? If the standards are not viable for the classroom teacher, for whatever reason, debating the standards becomes simply another pointless academic exercise. Unless you can reach teachers at their busy levels, it doesn't seem to make much difference what Nash or Dunn or, for that matter, Lynn Cheney or Rush Limbaugh say.

Just what are the history standards, and how well do they fit the needs of teachers? Organizationally, the history standards are divided into four groups: (1) the initial fifteen criteria used to develop and guide the writing of the U.S. and World history standards; (2) the five standards for "historical thinking," that are further subdivided into thirty-four objectives; (3) the thirty-one U.S. history standards that are further divided into some 402 objectives, and the thirty-nine World history standards that are further divided into some 526 objectives; and (4) the several hundred examples of student achievements.

The strength of the history standards lies in the five bare-bones standards and the thirty-four objectives that fill out this section on the "historical thinking." Given this section alone, there is absolutely no basis for rejection of any of the five standards or thirty-four objectives on "historical thinking." Specifically, there is nothing out of the ordinary in requesting that teachers explore with students "chronological thinking, historical comprehension, historical analysis and interpretation, historical research capabilities, and historical issues-analysis and decision-making." The only possible critique here is that the standards may reach too high for some, but then standards are supposed to set high marks.

Moving next into the thirty-one basic standards for U.S. history and the thirty-nine standards for World history, these sections are written so broadly that any number of historical interpretations is possible, regardless of ideology or perspective. We might of course fuss over a word or intention here or there, and at worst reject one or two standards: for my part, I take exception to U.S. standard 1 dealing with the characteristics of the societies of the Americas, western Europe and West Africa between 1450 and 1620. But if all we had to examine were the five central standards and the thirty-four objectives for "historical thinking," and the thirty-one U.S. history and thirty-nine world history standards, there would be little basis for significant argument from any quarter.

Where's the beef then? The history standards become tangled in a web of political correction in the narrative sections that introduce and explain each section as well as in a large block of the nine hundred specific objectives that fall under the U.S. and World standards. The standards are decidedly and hopelessly thrown into inevitable conflict when authors present the several hundred "examples of student achievements." It is here that the standards writers leave the familiar terrain of solid history and launch into the great unknown of political correction.

Rewriting History
The U.S. history standards objectives, narratives, and examples of student achievement do not square with, for lack of a better word, traditional approaches to U.S. history that present a largely uplifting, factual and objectively based history that highlights U.S. achievements and successes. Whether the NCHS critiques are valid or not, no nation has ever endorsed curricula that have been so critical about its own past. If the aim of a significant part of history curricula is to contribute to the development of citizens, then there is not much in these standards that reflects or points to the grandeur of the United States, or that focuses attention on the achievements that have led to its current world leadership role. For example, according to the standards' authors, the incredible growth of the United States from 1801 to 1861 was not led by courageous, hard working, self-sacrificing ancestors; rather, the "vast territorial expansion" was "animated by land hungry [pioneers] and the ideology of 'Manifest Destiny' (U.S. Standards, 92)." Our ancestors are not presented as carving a new civilization out of the wilderness with sweat and blood, but rather as forcing the "removal of many Indian nations" and engaging "in abrasive racial encounters with Native Americans, Mexicans, Chinese immigrants and others in the West" (Ibid.) It is as if the history of the United States was one long race war. In the narrative and operational standards, it is clear that for every advance (and I'm not sure that is the word Nash and Dunn would use), there is a dark side of history, a price that was paid by that some innocent group of people. What is the cumulative effect of this "doom and gloom" instruction on students? A nation of young cynics who see evil in every action, who come to view all history as a race war?
The point is that despite all the problems that have beset us as a people, a united people, we have somehow managed to make enormous strides. The United States is the most powerful nation in the world. Have not American inventors, scientists, businessmen and women, and hosts of others, with a lot of luck, skill and hard work built a nation like no other? How do we account to our children for the standing of this nation? No one disputes "perspectives," no one disagrees that we have problems, but to place before children a "doom and gloom" revision of history is both ahistorical and foolish.

Some of most glaring examples of questionable decisions are found in what is included and what is left out of the standards. For example, in the United States history standards, students are to read stories of Mansa Musa's "great pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324" and "[d]raw upon the historical narratives of Muslim scholars such as Ibn Fadi Allah." While this work might be important to include for some, should this study really be "equally expected of all students" [my emphasis] in American history? Given the very real time constraints of teaching social studies in most American schools, if you specify that students should study Mansa Musa and Ibn Fadi Allah but do not make specific demands for learning about Robert E. Lee, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and a host of standard luminaries from American history, the political corrective picture becomes quite clear: teachers are supposed to include those who were excluded from the histories by excluding people who actually had significant roles in American history. Not only does this move make little sense to teachers, it is historically flawed. While I agree that Mansa Musa is important from a world or African history perspective, in a course with only 180 days to introduce United States history, the contributions of Lee, Bell, Edison and Einstein certainly merit greater weight.

The problem with the standards isn't just one of references to personalities. The omissions and inclusions result from problems of substance. The historical figures not mentioned in the standards represent developments and trends that the authors of the standards have not given their appropriate weight. Not only are teachers being lectured about a new cast of important figures in American history; they are also being asked to pull out and highlight less important areas of U.S. history to the exclusion of others. Why are there seventeen references to the Ku Klux Klan and not a single specific standard for the U.S. Constitution? Why nineteen references to McCarthy and McCarthyism and not a single required reading of the Federalist Papers-which are arguably among the most significant works of democracy ever written? Other issues are also unevenly examined. Lynn Cheney (1994) rightly questions why "the kind of wealth that Mansa Musa commanded" is not given the treatment given John D. Rockefeller, who is to be put on trial on the following charge: "The plaintiff had knowingly and wilfully participated in unethical and amoral business practices designed to undermine traditions of fair and open competition for personal and private aggrandizement in direct violation of the common welfare" (U.S. Standards, 139). By contrast, students are asked to "analyze the achievements and grandeur of Mansa Musa's court, and the social customs and wealth of the Kingdom of Mali." (U.S. Standards, 44)

Among the criteria used to develop the standards is the premise that "the ability to detect and evaluate distortion and propaganda by omission, suppression, or invention of facts is essential." (U.S. Standards, 3) "Careful evaluation of evidence, construction of causal relationships, balanced interpretation, and comparative analysis" is also described as equally important for "sound historical reasoning." These criteria are not applied in the standards themselves, which often reject rational, data-driven positions. For example, the idea of the "great convergence" presented in the U.S. standards for Era 1 (U.S. Standards, 39-49) is offered not as a recent developing theory, but as an established fact. The central "convergence" thesis outlined in this part of the standards is that Europeans, American Indians, and West Africans each had an equal part in the beginnings of the United States. The fact, however, is that while each group of people was clearly affected by Columbus's discovery of the New World, the energy, dynamics, and animation were European. The entire drive to explore, discover, exploit, settle, tame and whatever else the Europeans had in mind, was at that time (though not now) European. The standards authors present eight specific objectives related to Indian and West African history, and three objectives to account for the European third of the convergence.

Starting with Columbus, who is no longer considered a hero, but a harbinger of racism and destruction, we are told that U.S. history cannot be understood without understanding the complexities of societies of pre-Columbian America and West Africa. I would maintain, however, that the beginnings of the United States are most properly traced to Jamestown in 1607 (not to Columbus, the American Indians or West Africa). There are a number of charges against "Europeans initiat[ing] the changes" in the New World, such as "violent conflicts between whites and indigenous peoples, the devastating spread of European diseases among Native Americans, and the gradual dispossession of Indian land; [as well as] the traffic in the African slave trade and the development of slave labor system in many colonies.(U.S. Standards, 51) There is, however, no mention of practices in American Indian and West African societies that were also violations of the concepts of human rights that became dominant much later in the United States. While Europeans are charged with racist, sexist, classist, and anti-environmental actions, the standards lack any critique of pre-Columbian Indian or West African society. Why?

What is also critical to the early American story presented in the standards is the importance of the intellectual curiosity and scientific and technological innovation in Europe that led to the attempts by various European individuals to travel East by West. Discoveries that enabled this exploration to take place included the advent of printing, gunpowder, compass and other navigational instruments and advanced shipping technologies. The printing press spread the news of the riches of the East and lit the fire for explorations; the compass, navigational instruments, and advances in shipping all made long trips possible; the gun made long trips with few men possible by equalizing the odds that they might encounter. All these factors worked in favor of the Europeans and against the West Africans and Indians. Why do these points not receive central attention?

The story of how the United States became a country begins in Europe, with the people who for complex and simple reasons came to the new world. Heavy-handed moralistic, post-modernist multiculturalism aside, the story is how multiple non-related groups of Europeans applied superior technology with courage, drive, and determination to forge the founding of the colonies. The drive to the West was to defeat or convert enemies, to tame and manage resources, to connect and establish political, economic, and social ties with Europe, to fight for and maintain lands, to exploit resources, to create wealth, to provide sanctuary of religious practice, to seek self-rule, to spread Christianity, and many other reasons.

Whether or not any or all of these things are good or bad by some arbitrary set of 20th century standards is irrelevant. The point of history is to explain, to discuss, to explore, and to understand the meaning and consequences of what happened. The point of our history is not to redress 1990s grievances or to establish cause to hate the early explorers or colonists, or their descendants, or to long for some utopian vision of a happy history that never existed. The point of our history is not to establish whole groups of people as victims and whole groups of people as victimizers. It is to tell the whats, wherefore, and why. No one can deny that the perspective of Indians and West Africans is part of the story that should be told, but it should not be the lens through which all the story is told.

The history of the new world is not some story of great convergence between three interconnected and equally strong people and environments. The domination of the new world by Europeans was indeed complete and thorough. It took place long before twentieth century standards of human rights and pity for the defeated had been established. The destruction of Indian and West African populations was not a campaign of planned extermination, but rather the consequence of superior technology matched against a technology wholly unable to ultimately defeat or even resist for any length of time. The standards fail to tell us how these technologies were developed and why Europeans were so successful against Indians and West Africans.

This is part of a wider problem: the treatment by the standards of technology in American history is wholly inadequate. What was and remains distinctive about the United States is the opportunity for creativity and invention to emerge. Starting with the Constitution, the framers envisioned a nation where independent thinking and problem solving was to be encouraged and protected. Despite the unfortunate claim of one patent official in the 19th century "that everything that could be invented was," invention has always been one of America's greatest accomplishments. Why is there so little attention in the standards to our great inventions, our great inventors, our great achievements? Is there no room for at least Thomas Edison here?

The standards authors seem intent on explaining and accounting for oppression and racism from a twentieth century perspective. But from a historical point of view, what is important is the fact that European technology, institutions and its applications were undeniably more successful in conquering, holding, maintaining, and later attracting settlers to North America despite the best efforts of Indians and West Africans to resist European expansion. Making this point does not mean that superior technology was morally better or right, or that Indian or West African technology was less so. But it is appropriate to argue that superior technology enabled the conquest and colonization of North America, and to give significant attention to the existence and development of this technology, including the social, intellectual and other conditions that fostered it.

The fact that Europeans (with the willing assistance of some West Africans) made millions of West Africans their slaves, or that Europeans subdued every single Indian population (often with assistance from rival Indian nations) cannot and should not be ignored. There were, however, many more reasons for this historical development than racism. And it is wrong to present the European settlers as monolithic in their attitude to Africans and Indians. The irony of the situation for the postmodern historian is the fact that the courageous and aggressive programs of the Church, with its great obligation of saving souls for Christ, played a vital role in the struggle against slavery and in saving Indians from utter and complete destruction at the hands of the early conquerors and settlers. While the plunderers did their work, missionaries, in seeming contradiction, had very different goals. Christianity played an important role in the end of slavery, as well as other causes ranging from the achievement of women's suffrage to the struggle for civil rights.

On these and other counts, the authors of the standards fail to account in the United States standards for the positive aspects of European contributions to the United States and, in the World standards, for North American contributions to the world. Democracy, technology, and Christian tolerance are but a few contributions to humanity that should be made clear, and may justifiably be celebrated. The standards authors, however, are more interested in seeing to it that "students ... study how white Americans, animated by land hunger and the ideology of 'Manifest Destiny,' forced the removal of many Indian nations. . ., acquired a large part of Mexico. . ., and engaged in abrasive racial encounters with Native Americans, Mexicans, Chinese immigrants, and others in the West" (U.S. Standards, 92).

Standard-Setting: Right and Wrong Approaches
Another problem with the standards is that the authors have confused the way teachers use textbooks and the way in which standards should be treated. Standards are not textbooks. In the use of textbooks, teachers make choices and compromises, and are able to select material appropriate to their courses. Most U.S. and world history textbooks are packed with enough standard pictures and references, highlighted stories, personal biographies, reprints of important documents and many other useful tools that a clever history teacher can mix and match using all but the most profoundly misguided history textbook. Teachers do not need to change the nature of their courses simply because new textbooks are different from older textbooks. For example, in new textbooks, not only are there more pictures of women and minorities throughout the text, but the content in the chapters and sections has changed. The front matter of many history series also explicitly announces the attention given to multiculturalism and diversity themes. My old Todd and Curti (the one that was actually written by Todd and Curti) bears little resemblance to the new Todd and Curti that is now marketed as a "brand-name" textbook. It is possible, however, for teachers to teach these courses according to their best judgment, even after the changes that have been made in their textbooks. Teachers concerned with maintaining their own distinctive approach can easily restore their course content with supplements.
Unlike history textbooks, which can be used in any number of ways or not at all, the history standards are not so flexible. Indeed, the whole point of having standards is to lay out expectations for every student. If a teacher considers a textbook to have a political bias-and a number of well-known new history series incorporate the kind of multi-cultural and diversity themes that the standards advocate-it is possible to be selective with the text. But standards are either acceptable or they are not acceptable. If they are written with good sound history and flexibility in mind, standards can be very useful, as an earlier history project was in its time (AHA, 1899). UCLA's history standards are unsuccessful because they represent bad history and they are inflexible.

In conclusion, by painting the flak on the history standards (1994) as simply attempts by the misinformed and politically motivated to wage "campaigns of disinformation," Nash and Dunn, together with co-author Charlotte Crabtree, appear to be precisely what their critics have said they are, academics with a heavy ideological agenda. With the failure of the standards, what Nash and Dunn now have on their hands is a fiasco of monumental proportions. A fundamental disagreement has resulted over what history is and what history should be presented to children. The result seems to be to show that no single approach to history can be made standard. The history standards authors have attempted to collectivize history into a "rich mosaic" of stories that are disconnected, often totally unrelated, and perhaps indecipherable to students.

What Nash and Dunn and the others at the National Center for History in Schools have accomplished is hardly what they had expected. Indeed, if Congress moves ahead to cancel the Goals 2000 initiative, the flak generated by the history standards will have dire consequences for the other federally supported standards projects in Geography, Civics, and Economics. Where does all this leave teachers? Incredibly, without any date to the Goals 2000 prom, NCSS standards (1994) may actually come out appealing to teachers and curriculum specialists as more reasonable and comprehensive. The reason for acceptance may be that the NCSS standards have been viewed as flexible and doable, but also that the NCSS standards have not been tainted by controversy.

The celebration of the 75th anniversary of NCSS is a testament to this organization's resiliency. Throughout this century social studies has always managed to survive, despite the intense pressure and attempts to destroy and dismantle it. The Goals 2000 project, with its emphasis on discrete areas of social studies-history, geography, civics and economics-rather than the whole was simply the latest attempt to undermine social studies. The secret of NCSS survival, and that of social studies in general, has always been very simple. NCSS is the only group of professional educators devoted to social studies education that is and has been totally invested, for the long haul, in the education of all elementary and secondary children. It is this fact that has escaped the grasp of academic specialists for the past century and has ultimately proved to be the fatal flaw of their curricular efforts in schools.

If we are coming into a period of common sense and sensibility about educational issues in our nation, NCSS and other social studies supporters need to be mindful of the task of getting and keeping our house in order. Where the authors of the history standards have failed, members of NCSS must be ready to help pick up the pieces. What discipline-centered academics have always failed to understand about social studies is that this field must somehow make sense and use of at least six discrete areas of study: history, geography, economics, anthropology, political science, and sociology (not to mention anything else related to cultivating competent citizenship). To start a child on an educational journey of a thousand miles over twelve years, you begin with the child on the first step and remain with him and her until the end. When academic specialists, whom social studies practitioners and school teachers desperately need, come to understand and respect the awesome responsibility of social studies teachers, and further begin to treat school teachers as equal partners in the quest for effective citizenship education, perhaps national standards may once again be possible. Although Nash (1992, 1995) and Nash and Dunn (1995a, 1995b) appear stunned and puzzled with the critiques, the only move left for the failed national history standards is to reopen the debate on how to teach history in the schools, and enable common sense to prevail over the application of a failed ideology.

American Historical Association. Study of History in Schools. New York: Macmillan, 1899.Belz, Herman. "National Standards for United States History: The Limits of Liberal Orthodoxy." Continuity. (Spring 1995): 59-71.Cheney, Lynne V. "The End of History." The Wall Street Journal., October 10, 1994.National Center for History in Schools. National Standards for United States History. Los Angeles: NCHS, 1994.---. National Standards for World History. Los Angeles: NCHS, 1994.National Council for the Social Studies. Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994.Nash, G. B. "The Great Multicultural Debate." Contention. 1, no. 3 (1992): 1-28.--- "The History Children Should Study." The Chronicle of Higher Education. April 21, 1995, A60.--- R. Dunn. "Communications: The Debate Over National History Standards." The Historian. 57, no. 2. (1995) :449-464. (1995a)--- R. Dunn. "History Standards and Culture Wars." Social Education. 59, no. 1 (January 1995): 5-7. (1995b)

David Warren Saxe is Professor-in-Charge of Social Studies in the College of Education at the Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.