IT has been just a year now since the publication of the National
Standards for History. There are two contrasting stories to tell
about these controversial guidelines.
The first story began last October when Lynne Cheney, former head
of the National Endowment for the Humanities, blasted the standards
in the Wall Street Journal. Academic liberals and
multiculturalists, she argued, had "hijacked" the project in order
to produce guidelines that were revisionist and "politically
Ms. Cheney sifted through the US history standards to find a
phrase here, an omitted name there that might be construed as
undermining traditional American values and achievements. She
charged, for example, "that not a single one of the 31 standards
mentions the Constitution."
All she was actually saying is that the word "constitution" does
not appear in a particular topic heading. In fact the standards
include a major section on the Continental Congress, Constitution,
and Bill of Rights, a feature the American Legal and Constitutional
Society has lauded.
Mrs. Cheney complained that George Washington "makes only a
fleeting appearance." In reality the guidelines encourage children
at all grade levels to study his life through stories, biographies,
documents, national symbols, and library research.
The gap is indeed immense between the Cheney version of the
standards and the actual documents. Yet pundits and talk show hosts
quickly picked up her allegations and for many months repeated
them. This summer, Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich joined in. On
Labor Day Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas attacked the standards in a
speech to the American Legion, denouncing them as threatening
Americans "as surely as any foreign power ever has."
None of these political figures made a thoughtful critique of the
guidelines. They merely repeated the phrases Mrs. Cheney had
uttered months before. In other words, the political controversy
over the standards has degenerated into a ritualized recitation of
charges suitable for preelection speeches to sympathetic audiences.
There is, however, a second story to tell about the events of the
past year. This is the story of the thousands of history teachers,
school officials, and parents who have been studying the standards,
discussing them responsibly, and quietly putting them to work in
social studies classrooms.
Across the nation, teachers, on the lookout for good resource
material, are squeezing the standards for all they are worth,
trying out the hundreds of rich teaching activities they offer,
drawing on them for new curricular designs, and largely ignoring
the political invective. …