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
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. …