Social Education
February 1998
Volume 62 Number 2

Book Review

History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past

(New York: Knopf, 1997) by Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn.
Reviewed by Robert Cohen.

Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn are veterans of one of the most tumultuous culture wars in recent U. S. history. The three were leaders of the effort to set voluntary national standards for teaching U. S. and world history in America’s elementary, middle and high schools. Just as the standards were about to be published in the fall of 1994, they and their authors met with a torrent of denunciation and abuse by conservatives, led by former National Endowment for the Humanities chair Lynne Cheney.
The Right waged a war of sound bites, focusing primarily on the U.S. history standards, charging that they were politically correct, anti-American, and biased against the great white men of the American past. By the time the dust had settled, the standards had been denounced by the U.S. Senate, abandoned by the White House, and ultimately modified (with their teaching examples essentially censored) by a blue ribbon panel of reviewers.
History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past is the authors’ response to the standards controversy. It is one that should be read by every social studies teacher, along with all other educators who care about the fate of history teaching. Given the political firestorm they experienced, one might have expected the authors to produce a shallow and bitter polemic. Instead, they have given us one of the most important books ever written about the teaching of history in our nation’s schools.
This is not to say, however, that bitterness is entirely absent from the book. The authors have a tough time suppressing their loathing for Lynne Cheney, and they effectively document the ways that she distorted the standards (and teaching examples) to serve her own political ambitions and right wing agenda. Most of the book, however, avoids political score-settling. The authors make an ambitious attempt to set the standards controversy into historical perspective—first by explaining the historiographical revolution of our time, and then by recounting earlier textbook disputes that anticipated the war over the history standards.
History on Trial describes the changing nature of historical scholarship with a degree of clarity one rarely encounters from academics. The authors are especially good in describing and defending the rise of the new social history, women’s history, labor history, African American and Native American History. They show that this new scholarship, which since the 1960s has done so much to give us a fuller and more inclusive reading of American (and world) history, also made curricular/standards controversies almost inevitable, since the scholarship yielded a more critical reading of the American past than the old elitist history preferred by conservative ideologues.
History on Trial makes a valuable point in showing that disputes over the meaning and teaching of American history are as old as the country itself. There has always been a tension between analytical history (favored by more critical segments of the intelligentsia) and filiopietism (preached by superpatriots and others who want to use school history to foster nationalism). Nash, an expert on the Revolutionary era, even finds this tension in the aftermath of the American Revolution, with John Adams complaining:

“The History of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electric rod smote the earth and out sprang George Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod, and henceforward these two conducted all the policy negotiations, legislatures, and war.” Adams disdained the “superstitious veneration ... paid to General Washington.” (17-18)

The authors identify with those historians and other scholars who have labored to bring serious historical thought and controversy into the classrooms and textbooks of America’s schools. They are justly critical of professional historians who, during long periods of the 20th century, secluded themselves in America’s collegiate ivory towers and ignored the plight of history in the schools. This indifference to the fate of school history, the authors demonstrate, contributed to the enormity of the gap between history as a critical discipline and history as a schoolroom trivia game, with its traditional mind numbing regurgitation of names and dates.
It is difficult to imagine historians today, cloistered as most of them are in the academy, not coming away from this book with a guilty conscience about their apathy towards K-12 history teaching. The authors are not, however, simply playing a negative tune here. They see the standards movement, and other recent attempts to reform the teaching of history in the schools, as especially positive events because they have encouraged at least an activist minority of historians to step out of academe and begin collaborations with the hard working social studies teachers in the schools.
History on Trial makes an eloquent defense of the standards as a vehicle for teaching students to think critically, analyze evidence, and confront divergent views of the past. But after looking at the history of social studies, the authors acknowledge that such innovative approaches to history in the schools are not always welcomed by the public. For instance, the authors were struck by the parallels between the standards controversy of the 1990s and the attack by superpatriots on Harold Rugg’s social studies textbooks in the 1930s. Rugg’s books raised critical questions about social class, laissez-faire capitalism, and other topics that reactionary groups did not want students to discuss. These assaults moved Rugg’s textbooks from the school best-seller list to virtual pariah status. Nash et. al. find in Rugg’s critics many of the unethical tactics that they confronted in the 1990s: “In his autobiography, Rugg put his finger on a point that applied equally well to the denunciation of the National History Standards: ‘Obviously, a writer’s meaning can be completely altered or destroyed by lifting statements out of context... [and such distortion] drastically altered the mood of the people ... and has resulted in censorship in the schools.” (45)
Among the most valuable parts of the book is its account of the dialogue within the standards coalition of scholars and teachers about how both U.S. and world history ought to be taught. History on Trial documents that—contrary to the claims of conservative detractors—the standards called for a more global and multicultural version of history, not because this might seem politically correct, but rather because this was more reflective of both historical reality and the most rigorous and informed historical scholarship. Partisans of the old “western civ” framework may not like the way that the world history standards integrate the history of the west with that of the rest of the world, but they should at least read History on Tria#146;s level-headed discussion of the rationale behind this shift—which the authors present as a more cosmopolitan approach to history.
Those who followed the dispute over the history standards will be especially interested in the later chapters, which narrate the furious conservative response to the standards and the counteroffensive launched by Nash and his colleagues. The authors are persuasive in arguing that many of the critics of the standards inside the Beltway were not judging them on their merits (some clearly had not even read the standards), but rather using them as a part of a larger right wing cultural assault on the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Department of Education and the entire supposedly liberal educational establishment. That these critics were intent on making political hay out of the standards rather than offering a good faith effort to resolve the dispute is revealed in the case of John Fonte, an assistant to Lynne Cheney. Fonte attended a meeting at the Brookings Institute with Nash and other standards advocates. The meeting was intended to explore ways to bridge the gap between the critics and supporters of the standards. Right after the meeting, Fonte gave the press a typed statement saying that the standards were fatally flawed and that no progress had been made at the meeting. But under questioning, Fonte admitted that he had written the “no progress” statement before the meeting had actually convened! (231)
Fascinating as it is, History on Trial’s discussion of the politics of the standards dispute contains one glaring omission. Though the book’s closing chapter is titled “Learning from the History War,” the authors do not seem sufficiently introspective to learn some of the key lessons which come out of the standards conflict. There is too much self-justification and not enough soul-searching here. I cannot recall a single instance in which the authors concede that they made a mistake (even a minor one) in this entire political fracas. Their interpretation of the standards fight comes off as one in which they were walking in the park one day (standards in hand), when they were mugged politically by Cheney and company. This may make for good drama, but as political history it is simplistic.
Notwithstanding the Rugg discussion, the authors seem unfamiliar with the larger history of educational reform in the United States. They could have learned much, for example, from Lawrence Cremin’s work on the decline of the progressive movement in American education, or from Diane Ravitch’s discussion of the failed attempt to bring the Gary Plan to New York in the early twentieth century. In both cases, reformers with innovative educational ideas failed because of their own insularity and inability to reach and attract the broader public. Nash et. al. assume that because they worked with many social studies educators, school administrators and academics, their standards had a mighty constituency. But when educators speak to themselves and not to the public, they have little political capital to spare. This lack of connection with the public left the history standards vulnerable to someone like Cheney who, for all her faults, was an old pro at using the media to connect to millions of Americans.
History on Trial is cavalier in dismissing the prospect of involving ordinary Americans in the standards process. The authors scoff at Chester Finn’s proposals for such involvement, terming it “fake populism” to give “bus drivers, policemen, engineers” and others outside the educational establishment a hand in this process. The most that they will acknowledge is that “in developing history standards it might have been a good idea to have an electrician or two sit on the National Council to minimize jargon and provide occasional reality checks.” (264)
Such condescension is quite jarring, coming as it does from educators devoted to a more bottom up and inclusive approach to history. A bit more populism could have gone a long way towards awakening the standards’ authors to how novel and even alien the new standards might look to generations of Americans who grew up on school history that was far less multicultural and critical than that found in the new history standards. (264) More contact with parents and others outside the educationist/social studies/history network might have left Nash et. al. better prepared for the right wing assault on the standards, and made them more adept at attracting ordinary Americans to both the standards and the new, more democratic history they represent.
The authors make so much out of the support they received from history teachers that they hardly notice that the voting public knew little and cared less about the whole standards dispute. This lack of a public constituency did, however, attract the notice of politicians with more sensitive political antenna, such as Bill Clinton, which is why the President and his education department ran for cover and refused to take any political risks for the standards group once they came under siege from the Right. It seems odd, given the democratic rhetoric of Nash and his colleagues, that their own narrative suggests their resemblance to the middle class progressive reformers of the early 20th century—whose elitism, cult of expertise, and inability to connect to common people undermined their efforts to change American education.
Maybe it is unfair to ask anyone, including these gifted historians and educators, to stand back and write the kind of political history that will probe their own shortcomings. But while it is evident that History on Trial fails on this level, the book succeeds on many others—challenging teachers to use history to provoke students to think critically, making comprehensible to non-specialists the recent advances in American historiography, calling upon Americans to rise above standards bashing, book banning and museum censorship, and beckoning our nation to have the courage to confront the pathos and the pain rather than just the pageantry of the American past.

Robert Cohen is a professor in the Department of Social Science Education, College of Education, at the University of Georgia in Athens.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.