Goals in Study of U.S. History Light Firestorm

Article excerpt

The goal is to wipe out all those groans and glazed-over looks that greet elementary and high school teachers when they bring up the topic of history.

The proposed solution, the nation learned last fall, is to let American students seek out their own history in pursuit of what their nation is all about.

Ask them to read Abigail Adams' letters to analyze how women's rights improved after the American Revolution. Let them create a skit about the lives of slave children based on books of the time. Have them find political cartoons of the late 19th century to examine intolerance of Catholic and Jewish immigrants.

That is the gist of the first proposed national standards for teaching history, a 271-page manual unveiled Oct. 26 after two years of work by an ethnically and racially diverse panel of teachers, scholars and civic leaders, led by the University of California at Los Angeles.

History Professor Gary Nash of UCLA called the effort "nothing less than a new American revolution in the teaching of history."

But he and his fellow panelists spoke too quickly when they praised it as a consensus on how to look at the past. In the United States, there never will be a consensus on how to look at the past.

Even before the proposed standards hit the streets, they became the latest bone of contention in the cultural and ideological dispute over the nation's identity and spirit.

A backlash by conservatives played out on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal and the radio talk show circuit, demonstrated how those boring names and dates from the past play a significant role in Americans' ever-changing image of ourselves and where we go from here as a nation.

Led by Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, conservatives argued that the proposal offered a distorted, "politically correct" view of the country. They said it ignored some of the great figures of U.S. history because they were white males and instead emphasized slavery, bigotry and other dark chapters of the nation's past.

In defense, the panelists said the standards encourage students to examine the often-ignored roles of women and minorities in history.

In any event, they emphasized, the standards were intended as voluntary guidelines, and teachers and textbook writers would decide whom to include in their lesson plans.

The result was less a debate over how effective the new standards would be in inspiring schoolchildren and more an exchange of angry accusations about hidden political agendas.

So the proposed standards' first lesson was one of politics rather than history. But that should have come as no surprise, because the task of making history is politics.

"History is used to invent a nation, to tell you your identity, and here we have always had multiple identities," said William McNeill, a retired University of Chicago history professor who helped draft the standards. "This controversy over American history is not new, but there are more voices out there, and each is demanding a place in the sun."

Adding to the controversy, the notion of national learning standards long has run counter to Americans' belief that education decisions should be left in the hands of state and local school officials.

Ironically, the decision to draw up standards for what fifth through 12th graders should know about history originated in part with none other than Lynne Cheney when she served in the Bush administration.

In 1992, after widespread praise from educators for newly published national standards for teaching mathematics, art and geography, Cheney approved a grant of $525,000 for the history project. The Education Department added a second grant of $865,000.

The project was awarded to UCLA's National Center for History in the Schools, which set up a council to draft the standards. …