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
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
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
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. …