Opinions Clash at Conference To Define History Curriculum

By Lynn Olson — September 05, 1984 10 min read

Berkeley, Calif--If educators fail to define a core curriculum in history, state governments will do it for them, Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, warned a group of 650 historians, administrators, and social-studies teachers at a meeting here recently.

The conference, “History in the Public Schools: What Shall We Teach?,” was sponsored by Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education and the California Department of Education as the opening event of the Clio Project, a joint program designed by the university and the state department to help revitalize history teaching in California’s public schools.

But the heated exchanges that characterized the three-day event suggested that the proposed renewal may be difficult; there was little agreement on what history should be taught at the high-school level, or in what form.

California’s Draft Standards

Mr. Kirst’s warning was particularly ap-ropos for the predominantly Californiangroup, many of whom attended the meeting to react to a preliminary draft of new state curriculum standards in history and to present their views on what should be in the history program. (See text of draft curriculum with continuation of this story.)

The new standards were mandated by the Hughes-Hart Educational Reform Act of 1983, which requires the state board of education to approve by January 1985 a set of curriculum standards for seven subject areas taught in grades 9 through 12. Histo-ry/social studies is one of them.

The attempt by the California legislature to gain some control over the actual content of classroom instruction is not unique, according to Mr. Kirst. A number of legislatures, boards of education, and state education departments around the country are trying to gain “remote control of the curriculum” through the development of statewide curriculum standards, tests, and textbook selections, he said.

“The new-style state intervention is directed at the heart of the local instructional and teaching process,” he argued.

State boards of education in Illinois, Missouri, Oregon, and Virginia, for example, have endorsed the development of statewide curriculum standards in the past year. Both Texas and New York State have been actively rewriting statewide curricula standards, Mr. Kirst said. In many cases, these new standards are being tied to statewide competency tests, achievement tests, high-school graduation requirements, and college-admissions standards, he added.

In California, for instance, social-studies and history items will be added to the statewide competency tests for middle-school and high-school students over the next few years. The state is also developing a U.S.-history achievement test (one of several under a new Golden State Examination Program) for students interested in high-school honors, state education officials said.

Dissension Over ‘Core’

Teachers at the conference said they were concerned about what the curriculum standards and tests will contain, since they will inevitably be held responsible for their students’ performance on the exams. The discussions grew tense at times as educators and state officials disagreed over whether a “common core” in American history or world history is even feasible.

“To talk about a common culture in a nation with as much diversity as this one requires such a level of abstraction as to make it meaningless,” said Nathan I. Huggins, professor of history and Afro-American studies with the DuBois Institute at Harvard Unversity. “When one attempts to make a common culture, one is almost forced to ignore or obliterate those qualities that are most profound in making people who they are. ... There are in the United States not only ethnic differences but regional differences of enormous importance.”

But talking only about people’s differences makes history “incomprehensible and undoable,” said William J. Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. “The public school is not principally an international food fair for the mind,” he said. “We cannot do justice in depth for all and to all that is diverse about us.”

“The thing that I reject,” added Mr. Bennett, “is the notion that there is no story that applies to all of us.”

One-Sided View

The “story” presented in the early draft of the curriculum standards is too one-sided, however, according to some of the teachers at the conference.

“There is a limited view of Ameri-can history reflected here,” said one. “There’s no mention of the word or the concept of racism. There’s no mention of the word or the concept of poverty. There’s no mention of the word or the concept of conflict or of violence. And these are all part of American history, too. ... I think this document sends a message to textbook writers and school boards that the scope of American history is limited.”

Said another teacher: “There is one kind of history person that be-lieves ... that there are certain things in history which everybody should know and that those are agreed upon by all historians. I don’t think that any historian here who publishes would stand by that statement--that any event in history is something so accepted by historians that there’s no question about it. ...

“If we train students as we have for the past 20 years, to think that there is a thing called history and that people are in agreement about what’s happened and what’s impor-tant about what’s happened, then we’re continuing the same crashing mistake we’ve been making up to now,” the speaker added.

Heated Rejoinder

But Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig replied heatedly, “If people agree with that statement in this room, you are not going to win this battle, because that to me is absolutely antithetical to what we’re trying to accomplish.

“There are some things that are important,” said Mr. Honig. “Every kid in this country should read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I don’t care if you believe in it or not, that’s the way it’s going to go. That’s a basic political, broad-scale judgment that I would guarantee 95 percent of parents in this state agree with.”

“I don’t care where the university profession is,” he continued. “Unless we can come to agreement that there are some important, essential elements, we cannot go on and make the kinds of curricula that are necessary. That is a social-science, relativistic view that as far as I’m concerned is discredited. And I think the profession, at least the teachers I talk to, are much closer to agreeing, ‘Hey, there are some things that are important to teach.’ How you package it, how you make it come alive, is the business of education.

“The other assumption that I have to react to strongly,” he added, “is that there is a hidden intent to give a dressed-up version of American history. ... We’re going to talk about imperialism, we’re going to talk about the negative side of American history. That’s as much of who we are as the positive side, but it’s not just a history of oppression and imperialism. It doesn’t come out of a Marxist textbook from the university of the Soviet Union. There are other sides of our history that are important to get before kids, and we might as well get that out on the table.”

Attention to Minorities

Both Mr. Honig and Mr. Bennett argued that students need a grasp of significant people and events in America’s past in order to gain a sense of participation and engagement in democratic institutions. But a number of teachers responded that they felt Mr. Honig’s position amounted to an “elitist” view of American history that neglected Hispanic, black, and Asian forebears of the nation’s students.

History classes and textbooks tend to deal with the treatment of women and ethnic groups in this country as “unique chapters in American history,” said Nadine I. Hata, dean of the division of behavioral and social sciences at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif. The history of these groups is not integrated into the history of the nation, she said, and therefore provides no lessons to caution against future xenophobia or “nativism.” Ms. Hata pointed, in particular, to the failure of textbooks to mention the internment camps set up in the Western United States during World War II for the relocation of Japanese-Americans.

“In the past, American historians have by and large ignored the ethnic character of the American people,” said Pedro Castillo, associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz and chairman of the university’s American-studies program. “Recent history,” he added, “has tended to emphasize the persistence of ethnic cultures,” not the melting-pot version of American history that was once pushed upon students.

Other teachers complained about the emphasis on facts and dates and famous people in traditional history classes, at the expense of the history of uncelebrated citizens. “History is now concerned not only with the public life of the community but also with the private lives of individuals,” said Arthur Bestor, professor emeritus in history at the University of Washington. “Accordingly, history is very much broader in its conception than it was at one time.”

World History

Similar conflicts arose over the teaching of world history, with some advocating a traditional curriculum that emphasizes the development of Western civilization and others advocating a curriculum that pays greater attention to third-world countries and dispossessed peoples.

Since World War II, educators have recognized that survey courses in American history and Western civilization are inadequate, said William H. McNeill, professor of history at the University of Chicago. But instead of coming up with a coherent view of world history that ferreted out “what mattered for humankind as a whole,” they have introduced a “smorgasbord” in which the history of the rest of mankind is tacked onto the European past by adding “little asides to Western civilization.” Mr. McNeill disagreed with those participants who wanted emphasis placed on “all nations equally” in an attempt to pay more attention to “weaker” nations. “My objection to that,” he said, “is that if power is what matters [in the history of mankind], then not all places are equally important. ... Denying that--saying that somehow everybody should be equal--is not historical. It’s not the way the world has been.”

Problems Acknowledged

While teachers argued over the clarity and direction of the curriculum standards, they also admitted that a number of problems exist in the way history is now taught.

For one thing, they said, students know “alarmingly little” geography. “We have to talk about the interaction between geography and history in the development of American society,” said one teacher. “I know as a teacher of 12th-grade, very talented students who have had several years of geography, that for them the Oregon Trail is just a word.”

Said another: “I would love to see the state come down and say, ‘There will be a one-semester course in geography, period.”’

Teachers also said that most of their history lessons never get beyond World War I, due to time pressures.

Said Stanyan Vukovich, a social-science teacher on special assignment to the Oakland Unified School District: “There should be some emphasis listed in the [standards] that 20th-century American history should be emphasized in the teaching of United States history. Frequently, in many districts, students are not taught about the Vietnam War, they’re not taught about the civil-rights movement, and for many of our students who are terminal high-school students, they will never get that information.”

Conference participants also complained about the lack of attention to history “skills,” such as how to write about history, and about the nonsequenced nature of the history curriculum, which they said prevented them from assuming that their students knew anything in common when they arrived in class each year.

‘Teach Everything’

A number of teachers also commented that they were being asked to “teach everything” and had come to the meeting for guidance about what to teach, but were leaving as confused as when they arrived.

“I’m going to have to teach to that test,” said one teacher, “and my job is going to more or less be on the line. ... We’ve been here three days to find out what we should be teaching in history ... and I still don’t really know.”

“I think we’re going to end up with maybe not consensus” on these issues, concluded Jean T. Claugus, a curriculum consultant, and liaison for the California Council for the Social Studies to the state legislature, state board of education, and the state department of education,"but a better feel for where we are [in the social studies]. I’m convinced that if we don’t take responsibility for it, then, as Dr. Kirst says, somebody else will. And for a social-science person, that is anathema.”

“This to me should be a national discussion,” said Mr. Honig. “If we can’t resolve it, if we can’t come to enough agreement about what we should be teaching, we’re never going to be able to do the [education] reforms. We’re going to founder on that issue.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 1984 edition of Education Week as Opinions Clash at Conference To Define History Curriculum