Cheney Strives to Keep Putting Her Stamp on History

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 16, 2004 7 min read
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With a long list of accomplishments and identities—author, scholar, pundit, federal humanities chief, and wife of Vice President Dick Cheney—perhaps it is the status awarded her by her young granddaughter that Lynne V. Cheney cherishes most these days.

“‘Grandma of the United States,’ now that’s a title to be pretty proud of,” Mrs. Cheney said recently in recounting the 4-year-old’s musings.

It is not an image that longtime observers of Mrs. Cheney’s work would likely choose. Yet in her meetings with schoolchildren, like the class of local 4th graders that met here last week to discuss books on American history, Mrs. Cheney has engaged students with warm, grandmotherly tones, sharing stories from the past and their lessons for the future.

As with her latest books—America: A Patriotic Primer and A is for Abigail: An Almanac of Amazing American Women—the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities has been targeting a younger audience in her efforts to promote learning about history.

Since moving into the vice president’s residence in 2001, Mrs. Cheney has invited children there to commemorate historical milestones and celebrate the Founding Fathers. She has visited schools to share her favorite historical narratives, particularly those of her own ancestors and the ones illustrated in her popular children’s books, whose proceeds benefit charity. And she has created an awards program to recognize authors of outstanding historical books for children.

Delivering Jabs

Lynne V. Cheney autographs one of her books last week in front of pieces of the Berlin Wall in an Arlington, Va., park.
Lynne V. Cheney autographs one of her books last week in front of pieces of the Berlin Wall in an Arlington, Va., park.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

But despite the kinder, gentler image she has projected among children and parents, Mrs. Cheney has not gone soft. As a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, she still lives up to her longer-held reputation as a razor-sharp critic in pushing for rigorous academic standards and traditional content and instruction. She has inveighed against progressive educational approaches and derided critics of strict testing and accountability.

Dietrich Weismann, the chairman of the Manhattan Institute, praised Mrs. Cheney recently as “one of America’s most distinguished intellectual thinkers.” The institute invited her to speak to a select audience at a New York City hotel last month about President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.

Mrs. Cheney used the forum to kick up her rhetoric for the 2004 presidential campaign. After citing what she described as stellar examples of the effectiveness of the Bush-Cheney administration’s ambitious school improvement law, she devoted a large portion of her remarks to a reproach of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and his diminishing support for the law, which he voted for in 2001.

“Looking over John Kerry’s various stances on education reform, a writer for Boston magazine has called his record ‘a desert of ambiguity,’ ” she said. “Certainly, it’s hard to come up with a satisfying explanation for his change of heart about No Child Left Behind.”

Back to Work

The address was squeezed in among her paid job at the AEI and her unpaid duties as the vice president’s spouse. Mrs. Cheney, 62, maintains a busy schedule of events related to those roles, as well as those involving the promotion of her books.

All this is in addition to the admitted strain that post-9/11 security concerns—which have forced her husband to work and live periodically in undisclosed locations—have had on her family life.

Other wives of recent vice presidents have also championed causes. Tipper Gore promoted mental-health issues during her husband’s vice presidency. Marilyn Quayle, a lawyer by profession, devoted her time in the first Bush administration to charitable work, particularly in the areas of disaster preparedness and breast cancer research.

But Mrs. Cheney has apparently set a precedent by returning to her paid job after taking time off during the 2000 campaign—and one that almost by definition involves intellectual controversy.

While Mrs. Cheney’s professional record has covered a broad range of social and cultural issues, it is her work in the area of history education that has earned her a reputation for speaking her mind. That work has won her some measure of admiration, even among those who do not subscribe to her views. But it has also drawn the most criticism.

“Her emphasis on history/social studies education has clearly left its mark,” said Jesus Garcia, the president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies, an organization that has clashed with Mrs. Cheney over the group’s advocacy of an integrated, thematic approach to teaching the subject. “Unfortunately, she has a more conservative agenda … that doesn’t allow other perspectives. She’s been extremely divisive.”

She began to make that mark with a monograph in 1987, written while she was at the helm of the NEH, that pointed to a lack of historical knowledge among the nation’s high school students, which she blamed on schools and teachers.

A few years later, Mrs. Cheney, who has a doctorate in 19th-century British literature, announced plans to develop voluntary national history standards.

A month before the standards were to be unveiled in late 1994, Mrs. Cheney, who had left her NEH post with the change to a Democratic administration the year before, wrote a scathing critique of the document on The Wall Street Journal’s opinion page under the headline “The End of History.”

The piece led to independent reviews of the document. Supporters of the standards effort, however, charged that Mrs. Cheney’s appraisal was misleading, and that critical content she had accused the writers of ignoring, such as references to George Washington and the U.S. Constitution, were indeed featured throughout the three volumes.

The standards committee made some minor revisions before releasing the document nationally, although none of Mrs. Cheney’s complaints had significant influence on the final product, according to Gary B. Nash, who headed the standards effort with his colleague at the National Center for History in the Schools, Charlotte Crabtree. Mr. Nash said the charges in Mrs. Cheney’s opinion piece came as a surprise, given her involvement in various stages of the standards-writing process.

“Lynne Cheney and I never disagreed on the importance of history,” Mr. Nash said. “But she certainly touched off a firestorm about the standards. … Now, 10 years later, I can say that the standards accomplished the goal” of providing a sound framework for history education nationwide.

The overall standards effort is ultimately credited with having a broad influence on history and social studies education. It has served as a model for many state standards documents.

History in Decline?

Nearly a decade later, Mrs. Cheney is still embroiled in the history debate. She and other scholars have called for an end to the social studies movement, which they argue undermines the teaching of history.

President Bush’s “We the People” initiative to strengthen history education has helped further that effort, Mrs. Cheney said in a response by e-mail to questions from Education Week. She declined to be interviewed in person.

But some critics ask how Mrs. Cheney can tout so enthusiastically the No Child Left Behind law when her passion, history, is being pushed aside in the curriculum, they say. As schools focus more on math and reading, the subjects that the law requires students to be tested in, many teachers are finding less time for other subjects. (“Troubled High School Narrows Courses,” this issue.)

“The stress on reading and math is at the expense of teaching children their country’s heritage,” said Mr. Garcia, a social studies education professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “Today, as opposed to 10 years ago, we don’t have more history in the curriculum because overall it’s being squeezed out.”

Mrs. Cheney has not answered those concerns directly. But in an e-mailed response to a question on that point, she wrote: “I think we often overlook the fact that reading is a skill that can be practiced and perfected on all kinds of content.

“There are,” she continued, “terrific books about history being written for even the littlest kids and that time students spend with them can benefit both reading skills and historical knowledge.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as Cheney Strives to Keep Putting Her Stamp on History


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