Standards in U.S. History: An Assessment

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In late October, a media firestorm erupted when proposed national standards for U.S. history were unveiled. Lynne V. Cheney, the former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (which gave $800,000 in federal funding to the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California at Los Angeles to develop the standards) criticized them as "politically correct to a fare-thee-well"; Time magazine reported that McCarthyism and suffragettes were "hot," while Thomas Edison and the Gettysburg Address were not. Other newsmagazines and national television programs chimed in with their views on the standards. (See Education Week, 11/02/94.)

Like Lynne Cheney, I feel some responsibility for the ultimate product because I was the official at the U.S. Education Department who approved awards of $1.6 million to the same project in the fall of 1991. The Bush Administration did not believe that there should be a federal agency to certify standards. Any new standards were expected to earn the support of teachers, like the voluntary standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience actually consists of three distinct components: first, a list of 31 content standards that define the central issues of American history (for example, "The causes of the Great Depression and how it affected American society"); second, a brief description of standards for historical teaching and analysis; and third, about 260 pages of illustrative activities, which are called "examples of student achievement."

Exploring the American Experience must be credited with some genuine accomplishments. Its 31 content standards, with few exceptions, are intellectually challenging. Its description of standards for teaching and learning are excellent. Many of the illustrative activities are well-conceived. And the document as a whole successfully incorporates the experiences of African-Americans, Native Americans, women, and others who used to have minimal roles in older historical accounts. The reader who opens it at random will find solid material; but the reader who peruses the entire book will discover a persistent strand of political bias that is unacceptable in a document that aspires to set national standards.

How should we judge the adequacy of the proposed history standards? Their purpose is to identify the major ideas, events, individuals, and trends that have shaped American history. We have a right to expect that the standards will be completely free of partisan bias and that they will meet their own criteria for objective historical analysis. Unfortunately, in too many instances the illustrative activities in Exploring the American Experience fail to satisfy these reasonable expectations.

The standards-writers declare that the standards "should contribute to citizenship education through developing understanding of our common civic identity and shared civic values within the polity." Furthermore, they say that the standards "should reflect both the nation's diversity exemplified by race, ethnicity, social and economic status, gender, region, politics, and religion and the nation's commonalities." The document itself, however, devotes little space to "our common civic identity" or "shared civic values." It honors the nation's diversities, but largely ignores the nation's commonalities. It aims to enhance the self-esteem of racial minorities and women, but those who seek a common national identity might well conclude that the founding, settling, and growth of our nation were shameful events.

Conventional histories present the main theme of American history as the ongoing struggle to extend democratic rights to all Americans. In the standards document, the implicit theme seems to be the ongoing (and usually unsuccessful) struggle by the oppressed to wrest rights and power from selfish white male Protestants. In this account, democratic ideals seem to be a hollow facade, like storefronts in a Hollywood western, while greed, racism, and corruption appear to be the real commonalities of American history.

The document's criteria for historical analysis hold that "teachers should not use critical events to hammer home a particular 'moral' lesson or ethical teaching" and that teachers should "avoid 'present-mindedness' (that is, judging the past solely in terms of the norms and values of today)." But the document itself contains numerous examples of moralistic and present-minded teaching strategies, as well as leading questions that do not offer students a genuine opportunity to debate issues.

For example, the following activity for the middle grades has a predictable response: "Develop a historical argument or debate on the long-term effects of the fur trade, considering for example its destruction of animal life; its disruption of traditional Native American relationships with the environment; and its effects in pitting tribe against tribe as their hunting grounds became depleted and they sought to conquer more distant tribes whose resources had not yet been exhausted." This statement is both moralistic and present-minded. It is inconceivable that any 8th-grade student would read this one-sided statement and argue on behalf of the fur trade. Or, in assessing the American Revolution, students are supposed to consider this loaded question, "How did white land hunger express itself after the war?"

The illustrative examples are sometimes guilty of oversimplification. For example, in assessing Victorianism, the standards-writers ask, "How do the reform movements led by Frances Willard and Anthony Comstock reflect the enduring moral code of Victorianism?" Anthony Comstock led a crusade against pornography and Frances Willard headed the Women's Christian Temperance Union. But Frances Willard was also an ardent feminist who provided a platform for Susan B. Anthony; under Willard's leadership, the temperance union became the first national women's association to support women's suffrage. That aspect of her life is overlooked in order to turn her into a one-dimensional symbol of moralizing Victorianism.

And while the standards-writers correctly reject the demand to name every significant person in American history, their final document frequently lists obscure persons, thus falling into the very trap of "mentioning" for which they rebuke critics. "How did the actions of Clara Barton, Belle Boyd, Rose Greenhow, and Harriet Tubman affect the war?" they ask, in a section referring to the Civil War. Clara Barton and Harriet Tubman are well known for saving lives; Belle Boyd and Rose Greenhow were little-known Confederate spies, who had no discernible effect on the outcome of the Civil War. It is difficult to ward off the listmakers when the standards document plays the name game itself.

Although standards-writers propose that students use "multiple perspectives," there are many instances in which it seems clear that only one point of view is correct. For example, students are asked to "Assess the impact of the uses of fraud and violence on the end of Reconstruction in 1877 as a means of testing a recent historian's assertion that: 'The end of Reconstruction would come not because propertyless blacks succumbed to economic coercion, but because a politically tenacious black community, abandoned by the nation, fell victim to fraud and violence.'" The context makes clear that students are expected not to question this statement, but to confirm it.

Significant omissions suggest political and ideological bias. For example, the discussion of the Cold War focuses disproportionately on McCarthyism, which occupied five years of a 45-year era. In two pages devoted to the Cold War, there are 19 references to McCarthy and McCarthyism, but not a single reference to Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe or to the Communist takeover of mainland China. There is a striking disparity between the attention given to the Korean War, which is passingly noted in two sentences, and the Vietnam War, which receives an in-depth, two-page treatment.

The very bulk of the proposed standards limits their usefulness to teachers. According to a report commissioned by the National Education Goals Panel in 1993 ("Promises To Keep: Creating High Standards for American Students"), content standards are supposed to be parsimonious and to indicate "the most important and enduring ideas, concepts, issues, dilemmas, and knowledge essential to the discipline." At 271 pages, Exploring the American Experience looks more like a national curriculum than standards. Since it is accompanied by equally massive world-history standards (as well as brief standards for grades K-4), teachers will confront more than 600 pages of "standards" in this one field alone.

The National Education Standards and Improvement Council created by the Goals 2000 act (and soon to be appointed by President Clinton) should not endorse content standards in history that fail to strike a balance among the nation's ideals, its failures, and its achievements. It should refrain from endorsing as national standards any material that reflects partisan bias or that is disputed by qualified scholars. It is not NESIC's role to choose sides in historical controversies.

NESIC should consider endorsing the 31 content standards of the U.S. history document separately. But the standards council should not even consider the document's book-length teaching activities until all language is removed that: presents only one side of historical disputes; demonstrates partisan bias; asks loaded questions; or uses other rhetorical devices (including omission of significant ideas, events, and trends) to inculcate the standards-writers' opinions. Even then, the document needs significant cutting.

In the meanwhile, schools, districts, and states should commission teachers and scholars to prepare their own teaching guides so that they are not dependent on this document's gloomy version of American history. Teachers should have a variety of supplementary materials to draw upon, not just one government-approved version of history.

This experience demonstrates the limitations of the consensus process, at least as it was practiced in writing these standards. Majority opinion, as John Stuart Mill observed in "On Liberty," is sometimes wrong; that is one important reason why we protect dissent. Mill also warned that "all attempts by the State to bias the conclusions of its citizens on disputed subjects are evil." Historical accuracy emerges from study, inquiry, and evidence, not from voting, log-rolling, and negotiating. When there is substantial disagreement about facts and interpretations, then different sides of a controversy must be fairly presented.

The recently released national civics standards prove that it is possible to use a consensus process to reach common ground without watering down the contents. (See Education Week, 11/23/94.) The important point about national standards is that they must be reached by achieving broad agreement, not by outvoting those who disagree. And their content must either be factual or, if controversial, described without prejudgment.

Bias and bulk are not the only problems. Cost is another. Unlike the civics project, which distributed 22,000 free copies to school districts, governors, legislators, and reviewers across the nation, the history project (which received three times as much funding) did not make provision for any complimentary copies. At a price of $23.95, the history standards will be beyond the reach of many teachers. And this too must be said: The document contains a large number of inappropriate endorsements of commercial publications (one of my own books is recommended, but none should be in national standards).

The debate over these proposed national standards reminds us that historical knowledge matters. As we define our history, we define ourselves. Because history matters so much, we must take care not to make some interpretations of the past "official knowledge," while shunning conflicting views. National standards in history will be deservedly rejected unless they themselves respect the basic standards of fairness that typify good historiography.

Copies of National Standards for U.S. History are available for $23.95 from the National Center for History in the Schools, U.C.L.A., Los Angeles, Calif. 90024.

Vol. 14, Issue 14, Pages 40, 48

Published in Print: December 7, 1994, as Standards in U.S. History: An Assessment
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