Historical Thinking and Other Unnatureal Acts: Debates about National History Standards Become So Fixated on the Question of "Which History" That a More Basic Question Is Neglected: Why Study History at All?

By Wineburg, Sam | Phi Delta Kappan, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Historical Thinking and Other Unnatureal Acts: Debates about National History Standards Become So Fixated on the Question of "Which History" That a More Basic Question Is Neglected: Why Study History at All?


Wineburg, Sam, Phi Delta Kappan


The choice seemed absurd, but it reflected exactly what the debate about national history standards had become. "George Washington or Bart Simpson?" asked Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) during the congressional debates. Which figure represents a "more important part of our nation's history for our children to study?" (Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn 1997: 232). To Gorton, the proposed national standards represented a frontal attack on American civilization, an "ideologically driven, anti-Western monument to politically correct caricature" (Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn 1997: 234). The Senate, in apparent agreement, rejected the standards by a vote of 99-1.

The architects of the standards did not take this rejection lying down. Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross Dunn, the team largely responsible for collating the reports of the many panels and committees, issued a 318-page rebuttal that was packed with refutations of Gorton; of his chief sponsor, Lynne Cheney; and of their various conservative allies, many of them op-ed columnists and radio talk show hosts. True, Nash and his colleagues admitted, Gorton was right in claiming that no standard explicitly named George Washington as the first President. But this was nothing more than a mere technicality. The standards did ask students to "examine major issues confronting the young country during [Washington's] presidency," and there was more material on Washington as the "father of our country" in the standards for grades K-4 (Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn 1997: 197). To Cheney's claim that Americans such as Robert E. Lee or the Wright brothers were expunged because they had the misfortune of being dead, white, and male, Nash and his colleagues responded by adding up the names of people fitting this description-700 plus in all--and announcing that this number was "many times the grand total of all women, African Americans, Latinos, and Indians individually named" (Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn 1997: 204).

Similar exercises in tit for tat quickly became the standard in the debates over standards. But just below the surface, name counts took on an even uglier face. Each side felt it necessary to impute to the other the basest of motives. So, to Bob Dole, the Republican candidate for President in 1996, the national standards were the handiwork of people "worse than external enemies" (Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn 1997: 245). In the view of Nash's team, critics of the standards were driven by latent fears of a diverse America in which the "new faces [that] crowd onto the stage of history ruin the symmetry and security of older versions of the past" (Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn 1997: 10-11). Put in the barroom terms befitting such a brawl, those who wrote the standards were traitors; those who opposed them, racists.

The rancor of this debate served as rich soil for dichotomous thinking. Take, for example, the forum organized by American Scholar, the official publication of the national honorary society Phi Beta Kappa (1998). American Scholar asked 11 prominent historians to write a thousand words in response to the question "What history should our children learn?" Should children learn "the patriotism, heroism, and ideals of the nation" or "the injustices, defeats, and hypocrisies of its leaders and dominant classes"? In case panelists didn't get the point, they were further asked whether the United States represented "one of the great historical success stories," or served as "the story of one opportunity after another lost"? Fortunately, sanity prevailed in this potential parody. Edmund Morgan of Yale University, author of the Stamp Act Crisis and thus no newcomer to propagandizing, noted that any answer would necessarily "look more like slogans than any reasoned approach to history," adding wryly that he didn't need "a thousand words to say it." (1998: 103).

Given the tenor of the debate, it's a wonder that history was ever considered a part of the humanities, one of those disciplines supposed to teach us to spurn sloganeering, tolerate complexity, and cherish nuance. …

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