Panel Unveils Standards for U.S. History

By Karen Diegmueller — November 02, 1994 6 min read
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The national history standards that were released last week spin a complex and kaleidoscopic tale of the settling and development of the United States.

Woven throughout the 271-page standards document are characters and themes designed to enable girls and boys across racial and ethnic spectra to identify with the U.S. history taught in their classrooms.

But the embodiment of these very elements that supporters say so enrich the standards have provoked outcries of imbalance and revisionism from critics who contend that such a portrayal of the United States is deceptive.

So vocal--and prominent--has the criticism been that the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California at Los Angeles released the standards for grades 5-12 two weeks early.

World history and K-4 history standards are still scheduled to be presented next week in Washington to Sheldon Hackney, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the project’s major benefactors.

History is among a dozen projects under way or recently completed that will offer guidelines of what students should know and be able to do in a given subject at certain grade levels.

It is also one of seven standards projects to receive federal funding. The N.E.H. and the U.S. Education Department spent more than $2 million to develop the history standards.

Controversy Expected

From the very beginning, history was expected to be one of the most, if not the most, controversial of the voluntary national standards projects.

Outside of education circles, scant attention has been paid to other standards’ projects as they have been issued.

But history has awakened the national media and soon may prove to be fodder for the radio talk-show circuit.

It is no small irony that the individual largely responsible for endowing the history project is now its harshest foe--Lynne V. Cheney, the former chairwoman of the N.E.H.

Last month, she pre-empted the official release of the U.S. history standards by writing a scathing commentary that appeared in The Wall Street Journal. In it, she vowed to fight the certification of the standards once a national panel is in place.

She maintains that the U.C.L.A. center’s grant proposal was based on a previous volume it had published, Lessons From History, but that the result is far different from that work.

“My overall objection is that they give us this warped and distorted version of the American past in which it becomes a story of oppression and failure,” Ms. Cheney said last week in an interview.

“The things that we have done that are successes, the triumphs, the progress that we have made are not given sufficient emphasis, so that students learning history according to these standards would have a very warped view of our past,” said Ms. Cheney, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

She notes, for instance, that there is no standard mentioning the U.S. Constitution, although the Great Depression merits three standards.

According to Ms. Cheney, the document also gives short shrift to such stalwarts of traditional U.S. history lessons as George Washington, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell.

She also contends that the standards become partisan, as well as politicized, the further they get into the 20th century.

“Ollie North gets mentioned more than Robert E. Lee,” said Ms. Cheney of the retired Marine officer who was a prominent figure in the Iran-Contra incident and who is now running for the U.S. Senate in Virginia.

“It is fine to include stories of men and women we used to not pay attention to,” said Ms. Cheney, “but that is no excuse to drive out consideration of the greats who, after all, did give shape to the history we are living as a consequence.”

But the standards’ developers say her arguments are disingenuous. For instance, while the U.S. Constitution has no stand-alone segment, it is embedded throughout the document.

And the volume is full of references to racism and sexism, as well as slavery and the brutal treatment of Native Americans.

“Those may not be the most agreeable subjects, but they are part of the historical record,” said Samuel L. Banks, a member of the National Council for History Standards, the group that oversaw the standards’ development.

Mr. Banks also noted that discussion of minorities and women are not treated as isolated subjects, as they often have been in school curricula.

“When we talk about the Revolutionary War, we portray the fact that blacks fought in the war,” said Mr. Banks, the executive director of compensatory education for the Baltimore public schools. “Youngsters will be able to see that,” he said. Students will “be able to see the remarkable role that women played in the Civil War.”

An Early Release

Gary B. Nash, a co-director of the standards project and a history professor at U.C.L.A., said the decision to release the standards early was made after Ms. Cheney’s commentary appeared.

“Since the charges she made are unfounded, we found it best that everyone should have an opportunity to see for themselves,” Mr. Nash said.

He points to the inclusion of Richard M. Nixon, who is cited 27 times, and Ronald Reagan, who is named 14 times. “It’s not that white males are slighted,” Mr. Nash said. “They are there, but their names are supplemented by a lot of people who are left out of history books.”

But Mr. Nash said he welcomes the criticism. “I think it just indicates that history matters. The discussions are healthy and should go on, but we can’t expect complete agreement. This is a country where I hope we have no official history.”

Others criticisms of the standards have been more tempered.

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said he found many strong sections in the document.

“Unfortunately, as it moves into the present, the history becomes more contentious and less balanced,” said Mr. Shanker, who urged states to consider the standards as one source as they draft their own sets of standards.

Diane S. Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education, said that, on balance, she found the standards to be a very good effort.

“I would give it a score of 75,” Ms. Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University, said. “They should keep working on it, make it more parsimonious, and get out whatever seems to be biased in terms of politics. It shouldn’t have a whiff of political partisanship from the left or the right.”

Sheer Volume

At one of the last gatherings of the history standards group, the overall complaint from the hundreds of reviewers across the country was the sheer volume of the document--not the content.

There are 31 standards that run across 10 overlapping eras beginning with the pre-1492 societies that converged on the Americas and ending with the MTV society of the 1990’s.

The standards also cover more than the traditional political and institutional history. They include social, scientific, economic, and cultural history as well.

Each standard lists what students should be able to do at various grade levels.

Lastly, there are examples of classroom activities for teachers to use if they so choose.

Copies of Exploring the American Experience are available from the National Center for History in the Schools, U.C.L.A., 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 761, Los Angeles, Calif. 90024-4108. The price is $18.95 for educators and $24.95 for institutions, plus a $5 shipping and handling fee for each book. Checks should be payable to Regents, University of California.

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 1994 edition of Education Week as Panel Unveils Standards for U.S. History


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