The Making of History Standards High School and College Teachers across the Country Helped Develop the National Guidelines for Teaching History

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NATIONAL standards for teaching United States and world history in grades K-12 were intended as guidelines for states and localities. Even before the official release of the world-history standards last week, however, they were being cast as battle lines.

Lynne Cheney, a former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), fired an opening round with an Oct. 20 opinion article in the Wall Street Journal that blasted the standards as an attempt at politically motivated "official knowledge." She focused on the relative absence of familiar white male figures like Robert E. Lee and Thomas Edison.

Her attack was joined by radio commentator Rush Limbaugh and others who voiced doubts about the value of any "standards" propagated in Washington. It was Ms. Cheney, ironically, who authorized NEH funding for the history-standards project back in 1992.

What critics ignore, according to Gary Nash, co-chair of the national council that formulated the standards, is the process through which the three documents - for US history, world history, and special guidelines for grades K-4 - emerged.

No "secret group" came up with this material, says Mr. Nash, who teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Rather, he says, a collection of history teachers and professors from all over the country met during the past two years and pooled ideas, made suggestions, and sometimes hotly debated what should be included. Comments were sought from more than 30 national organizations, ranging from ethnic-history associations to church groups to teachers' unions. The product, in three volumes, totals over 600 pages.

Most of these pages are filled with suggested ways that students at various grade levels can achieve a particular standard. The suggestions for classroom work came largely from the dozens of high school history teachers involved in the deliberations, Nash says.

Michele Foreman, a history teacher from Middlebury, Vt., who participated in the process, says a dozen teachers might sit down with two college scholars. The scholars, she says, were there primarily to check accuracy.

Ms. Foreman worked on the standards for world history and suspects that arena could become as controversial as the US standards, since the recommendations veer sharply away from "the old Western-civilization model." The intent, she says, is less "multicultural" than "transcultural" - attempting to trace the "world forces," from economic theories to religious movements, at work throughout history.

As with the US standards, the types of study suggested in the world-history volume could strike many readers as more akin to a college curriculum than to high school work. But "kids can think - they really can," says Foreman. "History is very messy, and kids have to get in there and wrestle with the material. …