May 01, 1998 5 min read

History in the Making

HISTORY ON TRIAL: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past, by Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross Dunn. (Knopf, $26.) In the history textbooks of the 1950s and early ‘60s, Dick-and-Jane America asserted itself as white, male-dominated, and beyond reproach. Patriotism, not insight, was the goal of an era framed by the Cold War. Even the evils of slavery were glossed over in textbooks with such obscene banalities as, “Most of the slaves seemed happy and contented.”

The national history standards proposed in 1994 by scholars at UCLA’s National Center for History—specifically Gary Nash and Charlotte Crabtree, two of the authors of this captivating book—sought to change all that. Designed to rectify the exclusions, inaccuracies, and blatant distortions of the past, the standards at first looked as if they would win widespread approval. Diverse groups of teachers and historians, conservative and liberal, had helped shape the document, and a hard-earned consensus on its goals and content seemed to have been reached. But when the proposed standards were published, they created a storm of protest, launching what the authors call “the history wars.”

Conservatives like Lynne Cheney, who as director of the National Endowment for the Humanities had initially supported the UCLA center in its work, condemned the proposed standards for a multitude of sins, including ignoring the Constitution while harping on the iniquities of the Ku Klux Klan and McCarthyism. Even Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers and certainly no right-winger, complained that the proposed world history standards portrayed everything European or American as “evil and oppressive, while Genghis Khan is a nice sweet guy, just bringing his culture to other places.”

Many of these charges were exaggerated if not false, and yet the critics made them anyway. What really seemed to infuriate them, this book suggests, was less the specific content of the standards than their almost subversive sense of just what history is. The new standards presented history not as a collection of ironclad facts but as a succession of shifting interpretations. How you saw America and the world depended substantially on your race, class, sex, age, and ultimately idiosyncratic point of view. The standards, with their turn away from rote memorization in favor of analysis and debate, were designed to engender skepticism before patriotism.

In History On Trial, Nash and company express consternation over the attacks they endured and the failure of Washington to endorse the standards. Still, they appear to be the ultimate victors, since the standards, somewhat revised from their original form, have become the basis for a popular textbook series. More important, as the authors conclude, “Americans are liberating themselves from the notion that history is an agreed-upon set of facts and a forever-fixed story.” History is now a story told from many views, many perspectives, and while that may make it frustratingly complex, it also brings it far closer to the elusive truth.

STANDARDS FOR OUR SCHOOLS: How To Set Them, Measure Them, and Reach Them, by Marc S. Tucker and Judy B. Codding. (Jossey-Bass, $25.) “Jeff,” the high school senior to whom Tucker and Codding dedicate this book, is America’s “everystudent.” Good-looking, outgoing, smart in that I-can-take-an-engine-apart way, he’s got everything going for him but physics, chemistry, and algebra 2. Like the majority of his classmates, Jeff has coasted through the fictitious Walt Whitman High School, taking easy courses from lax teachers. Now, on the eve of graduation, Jeff is prepared for.......well, Jeff isn’t really sure, though the authors intimate it may be far less challenging and remunerative than what he desires.

Jeff undoubtedly could get a job, perhaps at his father’s construction company. But according to Tucker and Codding, president and vice president, respectively, of the National Center on Education and the Economy, the young man’s options are decidedly limited because he’s been allowed to slide. What he needed during his school years, they argue, were rigorous standards that he and his peers were required to meet.

Of course, this message is hardly new. Everyone from school superintendents to governors has been touting standards as the cure for student anomie. The assumption is that clear and rigorous standards can do a lot to focus a teenager’s distractible mind. For their part, Tucker and Codding believe the traditional high school diploma is nearly worthless, representing little more than thousands of hours of “seat time.” What they want high school students to work toward is a more-meaningful “certificate of mastery.” Students would receive the certificate only upon passing assessments tied to “world class” standards in mathematics, science, their native language, and applied learning. Students would present the certificate to colleges or employers as evidence that they are ready for more-challenging work.

Most of this talk about certificates and world-class standards makes perfect sense. How could anyone who is aware of our students’ dismal showing on the latest international math and science assessments think otherwise? Yet there is something slightly disingenuous about the authors’ insistence that setting academic standards will foster prosperity. This book, like Tucker’s 1992 Thinking for a Livingunabashedly holds up Europe—and to a lesser extent Japan—as the model of educational excellence. We read, for example, that “European and Asian students take tough courses and work hard in school,” and that “in Denmark, the math [Jeff] skipped would have been required.” While this may be true, it is equally true that Jeff has a better chance of finding gainful employment and prosperity than his better-educated European peers. In other words, high standards may not have all that much to do with success and generating wealth. Either the American education system isn’t as poor as Tucker and Codding suggest, or the national economy, permeated with an entrepreneurial ethic, has powerful compensating characteristics.

Other things about the authors’ case for standards-based reform also seem less than airtight. They focus almost completely on the impact high standards will have on students, overlooking the fact that many teachers will not be able to teach to those demanding goals until they themselves receive more academic preparation. And while their proposal to convert the comprehensive high school into smaller academies makes good sense—that, after all, is what they do in Europe—such a move would likely curtail or eliminate many after-school sports and activities, the very things that keep many kids in school.

Tucker and Codding think America desperately needs an education system featuring rigorous standards and genuine accountability. America, basking in today’s climate of relative prosperity, may not agree.

—David Ruenzel