Education Opinion

The Ends of History

By Harvey J. Kaye — February 05, 1992 6 min read

As part of America 2000, and in conjunction with the Bush Administration’s plan to establish “national standards” in selected school subjects, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Education Department have announced a $1.6 million project to develop the standards for history. (See Education Week, Jan. 8, 1992.) In view of the many reports and horror stories about American students’ ignorance of both United States and world history--referred to by teachers, professional historians, and the media alike as “the crisis of history"--such an undertaking seems in order. However, before such standards and guidelines are established there are certain fundamental questions that must be addressed regarding the purpose and the promise of historical education, and, given the record of the Reagan and Bush Administrations on matters “historical,” we should be especially skeptical and wary of initiatives to determine “national standards"--potentially, a national curriculum--emanating from their offices.

The formation and ascendance in the 1970’s of the curious coalition of Old Right, New Right, and neoconservative forces was made possible in part by way of the concerted use and abuse of the past, a practice pursued most astutely and incorrigibly by Ronald Reagan himself. Indeed, Mr. Reagan’s mobilization and fabrication of history remained an enduring feature of his campaigns and Presidential speeches and statements, the crudest and most memorable examples of which were his references to the Nicaraguan contras as “freedom fighters ... in the tradition of our Founding Fathers” and his remarks in 1985 regarding his visit to the military cemetery in Bitburg, in which he stated that the Nazi SS officers buried there “were victims just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.”

Arguably, the Bush Presidency has lacked the color and rhetorical flourish of the Reagan years, but it has not been oblivious to the possibilities of using and abusing the past. No great communicator, Mr. Bush nevertheless made it a point of recalling the errors of Munich 1938 and the ensuing horrors of Hitlerism to rally American and international public opinion in support of(an unfinished) war against Saddam Hussein. And let us not forget that his policy-planning staff at the State Department included Francis Fukuyama, who announced in a widely touted article (now issued in book form) that we had reached “the end of history.”

Nor have the efforts to secure “the past” in support of the political goals and aspirations of the Republicans’ conservative coalition been limited to political campaigns and speechmaking occasions. William J. Bennett, first as head of the N.E.H. and later as Secretary of Education, effectively harnessed academic and public concern about “the crisis of history” and, placing it on the political agenda, made it into a question of public policy. This in itself surely was to be welcomed. But the problem for Mr. Bennett and his successor at the N.E.H., Lynne V. Cheney, has never been simply a matter of reinvigorating historical education. First, their endeavors in this direction have entailed the persistent denigration of and attacks upon the more critical and democratic developments in historical scholarship and pedagogy of the past generation. Students and teachers of the experiences of working people, women, and racial and ethnic minorities have been subject over and over again to accusations of “ideological bias” and blamed for the decline in Americans’ knowledge of their own history and the Western tradition supposedly undermining our “common culture” and “shared values” and threatening our national welfare and security. Thus, paralleling the campaigns against labor and the movements for gender and racial equality have been those against the recovery, interpretation, and teaching of their histories.

At the same time, the reports and pronouncements issuing from Mr. Bennett’s and Ms. Cheney’s agencies have repeatedly advanced historical curricula which propose an acritical and one-dimensional narrative in which the United States is represented as sole heir to the “Western Heritage” and, following Mr. Fukuyama, its final fruition. Moreover, these curricula ignore the underside of Western civilization and American history and also our splendid traditions of dissent and struggle from below. Mr. Bennett himself referred to historical education as a means of “legitimiz[ing] the political system"; and he and his Assistant Secretary of Education, Chester E. Finn, Jr., who has gone on to become the leading champion of national standards and curricula, wrote that such an education would help “foster social cohesion and a sense of national community and pride.” Similarly, Ms. Cheney has referred to schooling in history as a “kind of civic glue” promoting nationalism and the sense that we are all part of a “common undertaking.” Such sentiments and aspirations are alluring, especially in a period of national anxiety, social and cultural conflict, and economic distress. Yet let us not confuse the development of good and effective democratic citizenship with the making of an ideological consensus.

Of course, the most obvious question is: Whose values are to be defined as the values to be shared? But in the inevitable debate over multiculturalism versus a common culture, we must not fail to ask ourselves an even more fundamental question: What is the purpose of historical study and thought in a democratic polity? In other words, is the teaching and study of the past and the making of the present to be pursued for the sake of creating a consensus in favor of the status quo? Or is it to be pursued for the contributions it might render to the great public debates and arguments essential to a free and democratic life and the making of new history, perhaps, even a new history?

If our goal is the continued and further development of our democratic polity and culture, I would propose that historical education cultivate perspective, critique, consciousness, remembrance, and imagination--that is, the powers of the past. By perspective I mean the knowledge and recognition that the way things are is not the way they have always been nor the way they must necessarily be in the future. Critique involves a process of revealing and comprehending the social origins of the political, economic, and cultural orders in which we live and have lived. Consciousness refers to an appreciation of the making of history, an awareness of the “effort and sacrifice which the present has cost the past and which the future is costing the present.” Remembrance entails an acknowledgement that while the past is not for living in, it is a reservoir of experience--both of tragedy and of hope--from which we draw in order to deliberate and to act. And imagination commands that we recognize the present as history and consider the structure, movement, and possibilities of the contemporary world and how we might act to develop the humanistic and prevent the barbaric.

I am not arguing necessarily against the creation of national standards, or even a national curriculum, for historical education (though I would warn and urge against the reduction of historical knowledge to multiple-choice exams). Clearly, the teaching of history must be reinvigorated, and there is evidently broad support for the idea of establishing national education guidelines. However, we should be watchful and careful regarding how the national goals for historical study and thought are formulated. Critically conceived and smartly pursued, they could well contribute not only to the development of a generation of students who perform well on history tests but, also, to the development of a historically-informed citizenry ready and eager to bring the lessons of the past to bear on the challenges of the present as we continue to extend and refine the ideas and practices of liberty, equality, and democracy. Subordinated to the politics of the day we could well find ourselves at the end of history.

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 1992 edition of Education Week as The Ends of History