Right for the Wrong Reasons: National History Standards

Michael Whelan

The Senate was right to repudiate the national standards for history in January 1995, but its members did so for the wrong reasons. The primary concern of most senators was predictably more political than educational: they judged the standards to be something of a political liability because the standards were too compensatory of traditionally marginalized groups. Motives notwithstanding, the decision may have a positive short-run educational effect. The near unanimity of the vote on the resolution-99 in favor, 1 opposed-sent a clear message to textbook publishers and standardized test developers. Both have considerable influence over what actually happens in classrooms, but neither is now very likely to use the standards as content analysis guidelines, something that would have further restricted and regimented instructional practice in schools.
The long-term effects of the resolution are less heartening. Senators simply conceded the fundamental question of the advisability of establishing a single set of curricular standards for the country. In doing so, they left open the possibility that another, more politically acceptable set of standards will be developed in the future. This was a failure to delve more deeply into the matter, or to move beyond the superficial, largely unresolvable question of how much curricular attention one issue or one group deserves at the expense of another. Underlying this failure, I believe, is a flawed conception of the realities of history education.

The most pressing problem is derived from the fact that historical subject matter is essentially limitless, but instructional time is not. Whereas no facet of human existence and its development through time is beyond the scope of historical study, the temporal constraints of educational practice are, in the end, absolute and unyielding. The first responsibility that every history teacher must face, therefore, is deciding which topics to include and which to exclude in a given course of study. Such decisions are an inescapable fact of life.

Two curricular questions arise directly from this fact: First, on what basis should such decisions be made? And second, who is in the best position to make them? Charlotte Crabtree and Gary Nash, the codirectors of the national standards project address both questions, at least implicitly, in the prefatory section of the standards reports. With seeming self-congratulatory pride, they proclaim that the standards were "[d]eveloped through a broad-based national consensus-building process" (National Council for History in the Schools 1994a, iii; 1994b, iii). Each set of standards, they explain, is the result of over two years of intensive work by hundreds of gifted classroom teachers of history; of supervisors, state social studies specialists, and chief state officers responsible for history in the schools; of dozens of talented and active academic historians in the nation; and of representatives of a broad array of professional and scholarly organizations, civic and public interest groups, parents and individual citizens with a stake in the teaching of history in the schools." (1994a, iii-iv; 1994b, iii-iv)
While the involvement of so many constituencies gives an impression of thoroughness and fairness, one must question this consensus-building effort in light of the controversy that the standards have generated. More pointedly, one must question whether consensus building is the best means to determine the historical understandings most worth knowing and teaching. I maintain that it is not. The most important curricular decisions in history education-the day-to-day decisions about what to teach-are properly the province of individual teachers and should be made on a classroom-by-classroom basis. Moreover, this sort of autonomous, decentralized curricular decision making is much more consistent with the fundamental nature of historical study than the consolidated, consensus-based approach that the national standards project represents.

Two points are particularly important in this regard. First, any notion of national curricular standards in history is wholly contradictory of the subject's essential interpretive nature. History is not a matter of facts, but a matter of deciding what the facts mean. It is a fact, for example, that John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859, just six weeks after leading an assault on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Knowing this is not history, however, for history involves the complex cognitive process of assigning meaning to such facts. Myriad intellectual abilities and dispositions are required: among others, the investigative skills of a journalist, the analytical persistence and precision of a scientist, the perceptive insight of a philosopher, and an artist's feel for the vibrancy and possibilities of human existence. Indeed, one historian once described the challenge of doing history as involving nothing less than "the transmutation of the lifeless lead of the annals into the shinning gold of [human understanding]" (Hart 1909, 246).

Thus, like all knowledge of social reality, historical knowledge is constructed, not discovered, and no two people do it quite the same way or arrive at exactly the same conclusions. David Potter, for example, in The Impending Crisis (1976), a highly respected history of the 1850s, dedicates an entire chapter to the assault on Harper's Ferry while John Holt in The Political Crisis of the 1850s (1978), an equally respected analysis of the period written at about the same time, dedicates but two pages. This is admittedly a crude example; nonetheless, the point is clear: the interpretive nature of historical study does not lend itself to the establishment of a single set of curricular standards.

The complex relationship between past and present in the study of history also underlines the perils of standards projects. The notion of national standards seems to be based on the assumption that the study of history is simply about the past, with subject matter that is therefore fixed and unchanging. This is a common, but largely misleading assumption, for history properly understood is actually about the relationship between the past and the present. More specifically, history is a mode of inquiry that arises from the reciprocal relationship between a historian in the present and whatever she/he endeavors to study in the past. Present conditions, sensibilities, and aims inevitably influence the process, affecting both means and ends. Although Benedetto Croce's oft-quoted aphorism that all history is "contemporary history" (Croce 1941, 19) overstates the case, there is considerable insight and validity in E. H. Carr's observation that "we can see the past, and achieve our understanding of [it], only through the eyes of the present" (Carr 1961, 28).

Analogously, as Carr also points out, the present influences what the historian chooses to look for in the past, as well as what the historian sees once such choices have been made (42-54). The questions historians ask of the past tend to change as present circumstances change. This has obvious implications for history education in general, and for the establishment of national curricular standards in particular. Whereas standards written in 1994 may be appropriate for that particular time, many of the questions that teachers and students need to ask of the past today may well be much less pressing tomorrow. One need only consider the dramatic changes that have taken place around the world since 1989-in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, and in Central and South America-to appreciate the inexpediency of trying to standardize historical subject matter. This conclusion seems equally valid if one concentrates solely on the rapid rate of change in the United States during the same period. Simply put, national curricular standards tend to inhibit the flexibility that history teachers need in order to teach their subject well.

The idea of having a very general curricular framework for the country may have merit, but any such framework needs to offer as much leeway as possible for individual teachers to make specific curricular decisions. All students, for example, should have ample opportunity to study the fundamental ideological principles of justice, equality, and liberty during their school years, but the specific questions about these principles that a teacher decides to stress need not-indeed, should not-be the same in all classrooms at all times. Many teachers are probably re-thinking the way they address these principles in light of President Clinton's recent recommendation to reconsider all federal affirmative action programs. And that is exactly as it should be.

The belief that classroom teachers should be responsible for day-to-day curricular decision making is not merely a matter of preference or conjecture. It is the way educational practice is actually conducted. For better or worse, teachers define the curriculum at the classroom level. They determine how a given topic is going to be studied. Thus, the goal of establishing national curricular standards is something of a sham, like recent proposals to adopt a balanced budget amendment. Both offer but a simplistic mandate in response to a highly complicated issue. One is reminded of H. L. Mencken's reputed remark that for every complex problem there is a simple solution that is usually wrong.

The most effective means of improving history education in schools is to improve the way history teachers are educated. Teachers need to be better prepared to exercise the curricular decision-making responsibilities that are an inherent part of instructional practice. It is essential for college- and university-based historians to become more directly involved in teacher education programs. Rather than rallying support for national curricular standards, as some historians are currently doing (see, for example, Jones 1995), members of history departments would better serve the cause of school reform if they worked to establish ongoing collaborations with their colleagues in departments of education.

Specifically, history and education professors need to ensure the following: that course work in history programs is relevant to the tasks of teaching; that it prepares students to meet the particular challenges involved in teaching broad, survey courses so common in schools; that it affords opportunities to engage in historical synthesis; and that it also affords opportunities to reflect on the nature of historical inquiry and understanding, and their implications for purposes of instruction. Many related issues about subject matter will also need to be addressed, as will many issues about pedagogy. It is important, for example, that students experience a range of teaching styles and strategies in the history courses they take; that some of these courses be taught collaboratively by history and education professors; and that members of the history and education departments have detailed knowledge of what is taught in each others' courses, especially educational methods courses.

More than thirty years ago, Richard Hofstadter (1963) lamented the great divide that had developed on campuses across the country between "the mental world of the professional educationist ... [and] that of the academic scholar" (338). In his judgment, this counter-productive bifurcation was the ultimate source of the anti-intellectualism he saw as so prevalent in the nation's schools. Time has long since passed to bridge this divide, to establish the dialogue that Hofstadter knew was necessary to conduct the "business of [educating] teachers" (338), for, as he so wisely understood, teachers are the key to determining what students learn, in history and all other school subjects.

Carr, E.H. What Is History?: The George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures. New York: Vintage Books, 1961.
Croce, B. History as the Story of Liberty. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1941.
Hart, A.B. "Imagination in History." The American Historical Review XV (October 1909): 227-51.
Hofstadter, R. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.
Jones, A.A. "Our Stake in the History Standards." The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 6, 1995): B1-B3.
National Center for History in the Schools. National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, 1994a.
National Center for History in the Schools. National Standards for World History: Exploring Paths to the Present. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, 1994b.

Michael Whelan is Assistant Professor of Education at the State University of New York in the College at New Paltz, New York.