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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Whose History Is It?

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Whose History Is It?

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The battle over national standards for public schools appears to be over. Most Americans now believe that some sort of accountability in which communities can compare the academic performance of their students with their contemporaries' nationwide is essential. In addition, most Americans are exasperated at the seemingly endless reports of how our students' performance pales before that of their international peers.

While standards and tests may be a given, the nature of those standards are not. That is why, in this season of Thanksgiving, near the eve of the new millennium, we might find it instructive to consider the fate of the national history standards.

Lynn V. Cheney, then the chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, commissioned them and didn't like them. Rush Limbaugh detested them. The U.S. Senate condemned them. Scholars such as Diane Ravitch and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. cited flaws in them. "Them," the national history standards, were developed in 1994 by a committee headed by Gary Nash of the University of California, Los Angeles, the director of the National Center for History in the Schools.

Why the opposition to the standards in American history? Why the rancor? Why the wild accusations? Were members of the standards committee truly "haters of history," as some charged? Why Ms. Cheney's claims that the standards ignored the framing of the U.S. Constitution when they did not? Should Harriet Tubman really not be mentioned at the expense of the Wright brothers? Does any inclusion of America's shortcomings make the standards automatically "grim and grimy," as detractors said? Must "them" be added to the interminable list of issues charged to political correctness?

The battle lines seem to be drawn around the issue of how much, if any, "grim and grimy" history should be presented to the young while being faithful to historical correctness. In the volatile, ideological climate that now seems to exist, the issue of what history should be taught is often fought on the extremes of political correctness vs. ultra-patriotism. Some advocate an American history with "warts and all." Others want no warts at all.

Whose history is it? What history should it be? Are we as a country unwilling to face our history? Many critics of the national standards do not want to hear of Indian removal, slavery, or Japanese internment during World War II. They accuse the standards-makers of being too quick and too eager to point out and dwell unnecessarily on America's past wrongs. They seem not to concede the need for students to confront their history so that they can learn from it. They seem not to acknowledge that, as Americans, we are exonerated from guilt because of the sins of the past, but not from the responsibility for them. Ironically, the Germans are accepting their responsibility for the Holocaust at a time when some on the right here would have us deny some of our past. James Carroll warned of the dangers of such thinking in a column last December in The Boston Globe:

"Like every human institution, America is ambiguous--capable of great good and great evil. When we pretend otherwise, we are dangerous, and when we pretend otherwise, we cannot be forgiven."

Seemingly lost in the debate over the ownership and the nature of history is the purpose of it. Is this not the larger issue? Why any history? Should it be history for history's sake? Does selecting those events and periods of American history that avoid any of our flaws contribute to critical thinking and genuine scholarship? What should we really be talking about?

No matter where one is aligned in the debate over what history should be taught, it would seem that all constituencies could agree that a major purpose of public schooling should be to produce informed and committed citizens. The teaching of history should play a major role in this, and the need was never so great as now. Genuine citizenship seems to be on sabbatical for too many folks today. Alexis de Tocqueville's concerns about our ability to balance excessive individualism and civic responsibility now seem well founded. We seem to be awash in extreme individualism and personal greed. Increasingly, persons identify themselves as "taxpayers," not citizens, and seem to lack any sense of public responsibility. John Dewey's contention that "every citizen is an officer of the community" is in heavy seas. And isn't it individualism run riot when the U.S. Army now exhorts potential recruits to join to "be all you can be" in place of what was once considered a sense of duty and honor?

Meanwhile, the committee on history standards has been sent to the ideological woodshed and made adjustments in them. These revisions have had to more nearly conform to the political correctness of the right, and not necessarily to the beliefs of history scholars and teachers. The latter seem to have been ignored, both on the national and state levels. However, the question of whose history it is seems to have been at least temporarily answered, no matter how flawed the process might have been.

In the long run, what history is taught will not be as important as the purpose for which it is taught. Will students emerge from their education with a commitment to self alone and a belief that the market economy will preserve the civilization? Even though not all democracies have survived--and the Weimar Republic is a wonderful case study as proof of this--schoolchildren in the United States are given the sense that our democracy is forever. In our version of historical determinism, we teach the young that democracy will triumph and is here to stay.

A recent report by the National Commission on Civic Renewal, a bipartisan panel chaired by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, gives a failing grade to citizenship in America. The report cites the inability of the public "to make basic moral and civic judgments" and the need to "work for improved public education with an emphasis on citizenship." The title of the report, "A Nation of Spectators," signals that current efforts in teaching to merely exhort goodness and model good behavior are not enough to produce good citizens. Citizenship is a contact sport.

Whatever history is taught, we must be willing to face our history and ourselves. This cannot be done by sole concentration on inspirational rhetoric and ideals, while totally ignoring our darker impulses. Ultimately, the duty of schools is to teach about citizenship and social justice. Students must work to be informed, active citizens who have a knowledge of history and public affairs, have a sense of belonging, and have the confidence to make a difference. Knowledge of the Wright brothers may have to be learned elsewhere


Henry C. Zabierek, after 46 years of teaching, is a writer and political consultant. He is one of the founders of "Facing History and Ourselves," a nationally studied curriculum on the Holocaust.

Vol. 18, Issue 13, Pages 27,36

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