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Myths and Realities

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After Lynne V. Cheney wrote a blistering op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal in October 1994, other editorials and columns began appearing nationwide that were also highly critical of the U.S. history standards.

Many of the rebukes, which have attained near-mythical status, echoed examples given in Cheney's piece. In his speech to persuade the U.S. Senate to censure the standards, Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., also sounded similar chords.

While many of the criticisms are technically correct, they mischaracterize the scope, content, and tenor of the document. Here are a few examples.

Myth:

  • The U.S. Constitution merits no mention in the 31 standards, although it does appear in the supporting materials.
  • This is one of the few times when Cheney distinguishes between the standards and the teaching examples. The word "Constitution" does not appear in the 31 sentences that constitute the first part of each standard. One of the 31 sentences, however, alludes directly to the document: Students should understand "the institutions and practices of government created during the revolution and how they were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundation of the American political system." Under each of the 31 sentences are subsections that specifically address the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. All told, the Constitution is mentioned 177 times throughout the document.
  • Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Cold Warrior whose ruthless pursuit of real and imagined Communist agents and sympathizers in the 1950s has been largely repudiated, and McCarthyism are mentioned 19 times--a telling example of how the standards set a negative tone about the United States.
  • McCarthy and McCarthyism are indeed mentioned 19 times--all in a two-page section on the Cold War. Seventeen of the citations are in teaching examples, which are divided into different activities for grades 5-6, 7-8, and 9-12. The writers do not use pronouns for the senator or the campaign that bears his name. Consequently, in one teaching example alone, McCarthy's name or its derivative comes up five times, and, in another, the words appear four times. Moreover, the emphasis is not so much on McCarthyism as it is on students' ability to understand the climate that allowed it to develop and thrive and the reasons for its repudiation.
  • George Washington makes only a fleeting appearance and is never described as the first president of the United States.
  • Washington's name appears only a few times in the teaching examples in the era covering the American Revolution and the forging of a new nation. One example asks students about the major issues confronting the "Washington administration," and an engraving of Washington's inauguration is included. But teachers would have a hard time addressing some of the standards themselves unless they talked about the first president. For example, one standard says that students should be able to analyze "the character and roles of the military, political, and diplomatic leaders who helped forge the American victory." Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson, arguably the most important Founding Father, is cited time and again. Besides, Washington is a staple of the K-4 volume that students are expected to have completed before they reach the U.S. document for 5th to 12th graders.
  • Albert Einstein makes no appearance at all.
  • While Einstein, a native of Germany, is not in the U.S. standards, he appears in the world-history volume in the standard on changes in science and the arts in the first half of the 20th century and in the accompanying teaching examples.

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