The Battle over History Standards: A Survey of Recent Articles

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1995 | Go to article overview

The Battle over History Standards: A Survey of Recent Articles


It is familiar news, but still disturbing: most American high school students appear to know little about U.S. history and less about world history. In a 1988 national test, only a minority of seniors showed even a general sense of the chronology of events in America's past or were familiar with the Declaration of Independence and other fundamental texts. The National Standards for United States History and the National Standards for World History, unveiled a year ago, were supposed to help schools and teachers do better by spelling out, in two volumes of outlines and study guides, what students in grades 5-12 should be taught. But the firestorm of criticism that the proposed standards ignited suggests that America's common culture may be, for now at least, so divided as to render that educational mission almost impossible.

"The controversy over the standards is part and parcel of a larger, profoundly political, culture war," observes Gary B. Nash, a historian at the University of California at Los Angeles, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Apr. 21, 1995). Nash is codirector of the National Center for History in the Schools, which coordinated the writing of the National Standards documents. On one side of the barricades, in his view, are historians who "have tried to go beyond a happy-face American history and a triumphant celebration of Western civilization." On the other side are critics who "believe that young Americans should not learn that . . . every society's history is full of paradox, ambiguity, and irresolution."

Other prominent scholars take a similar view. "Historians become notably controversial," Michael Kammen, president of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), claims in the OAH Newsletter (May 1995), "when they do not perpetuate myths, when they do not transmit the received and conventional wisdom, when they challenge the comforting presence of a stabilized past. Members of a society and its politicians in particular, prefer that historians be quietly ironic rather than polemical, conservators rather than innovators."

The "politicians" to whom Kammen refers include, presumably, the members of the U.S. Senate, who voted 99-1 in January for a resolution expressing disapproval of the National Standards. Lynne Cheney, who headed the National Endowment for the Humanities when it approved funds for the National Standards project in 1992, also has sharply condemned the results. "Reading the world history standards," she writes on the New York Times op-ed page (Mar. 10, 1995), "one would think that sexism and ethnocentrism arose in the West, when Western civilization has in fact led the way in condemning the unjust treatment of women and encouraging curiosity about other cultures. The American history standards make it seem that Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism (mentioned 19 times) are far more important than George Washington (mentioned twice) or Thomas Edison (mentioned not at all)."

But the views of even informed citizens count for only so much in the eyes of Theodore K. Rabb, a Princeton historian. He believes that the interpretations of professional historians should be "privileged" (to use a term popular in the academy). "When citizens have had their say," he writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Mar. 10, 1995), "they must understand that there are professional standards that govern acceptability in history no less than in physics." The National Standards, Rabb declares, "should reflect the full range of interpretations that professionals in the field regard as reasonable [his italics]."

But the National Standards, particularly in U.S. history, manifestly fail to meet even that restricted test. The critics include not only politicians, journalists, and others outside the historical priesthood but also professional historians. Walter A. McDougall, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in Commentary (May 1995), that the world history standards give non-Western cultures "a moral pass, but with one exception: their treatment of women. …

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