American History 101

The National History Standards Stalemate
How we interpret the past.
May 19 2005 2:03 PM

American History 101


Dear Jon,

Your belief that American schoolchildren need to learn that America "has often been an enemy of freedom" reminds me of an earlier, celebrated effort to teach American history with a negative emphasis.


When I became assistant secretary of education in 1991 in the first Bush administration, almost the first thing that I did was to urge federal funding of national history standards. Before I went into government, I had been working on various fronts to reverse the long decline of history education in the schools. In my new position, I was able to persuade the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities to make a grant to the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA to write voluntary national history standards. UCLA was chosen because it was home to Charlotte Crabtree, with whom I had worked closely in drafting the politically balanced and historically solid framework for teaching history in the schools of California, adopted by the State Board of Education in 1988 (and still in place).

Charlotte Crabtree was not a historian, so she invited Gary Nash to serve as her deputy. Nash is a prominent historian whose views and sympathies are decidedly to the left of center. He was unquestionably the dominant influence on the standards, which were eventually published in the fall of 1994. A few weeks before the release of the standards, they were attacked by Lynne Cheney in the Wall Street Journal for their negativism and political bias, and a great national furor ensued. Many right-wing commentators savaged the standards, but the standards were also criticized by major historians like Walter McDougall and John Patrick Diggins, as well as by teachers-union leader Albert Shanker, none of whom were men of the right. At that time, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and I joined to write an opinion piece urging that the standards be revised, not scrapped. In January 1995, the United States Senate voted 99-1 to reject the UCLA standards (the lone dissenter was a senator from Louisiana who apparently thought that the Senate's disapproval was not strong enough). Even a nonpartisan review by a large panel of historians (on which I served) concluded that the standards presented "a disproportionately pessimistic and misrepresentative picture of the American past."

I mention this past history because your comments evoke the earlier controversy. You want history to be taught to schoolchildren as it would be taught by left-wing professors in the university. That may in fact happen at present in some classrooms, but the fate of the UCLA standards suggests that it is not going to get a stamp of approval by any state school board, let alone the U.S. Congress.

You seem fearful that students in history classes are getting an immersion in patriotism. I doubt that this is happening either in high-school or in university classes. If you were to read the leading textbooks (such as those by Gary Nash), you would find that they are devoid of patriotism and that they consistently include descriptions of our nation's errors, misdeeds, and flaws. If they don't dwell on the dark side, they don't dwell on the bright side either. If they only mention the negative, rather than dwell on it, it is because textbooks are characterized by superficial mentioning. Let me reassure you that if students are patriotic, it is not because of anything that they encounter in their history classes.

My sense from your latest response is that you really want to argue about current politics, not about teaching history in the schools. There is no reason for us to agree about contemporary political issues, but there is a great argument to be made for people like us agreeing to ignore those differences and to focus on the importance of reviving history teaching in the schools. If historians continue to quarrel and engage in the culture wars with each other, another generation of American schoolchildren will arrive in college with hardly a clue about any of the major events and ideas in our nation's history or in the history of the world.

I end our discussion somewhat confused about what you mean by "teaching the conflicts." You know that there are not going to be any serious debates in high-school classrooms about whether slavery was or was not a good thing; we know that it was not, and we would be horrified if our students thought otherwise. You know that we are not going to give credibility to Holocaust deniers under the flag of "teaching the conflict." I assume that you would not give equal time to critics of evolution or proponents of flat-earth theories. You know quite well that teachers today are not going to be even-handed in teaching about McCarthyism or the Ku Klux Klan or Nazism. By "teach the conflicts," I think you mean teach students how historians disagree. Or maybe you mean teach the different sides of issues as they occurred at the time. I am no longer sure what you mean.

You should really become engaged in the problems and realities of the history classroom. You should be concerned about the meager state requirements that permit so many people who have not studied history to teach it; about the textbooks that turn history into a boring subject; about the awful state standards in social studies that marginalize history; and about the difficulty of restoring history to its rightful importance in the curriculum of elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. If you do this, I think you might agree with me about the need for historians to rise above ideological squabbles and join with others who have been trying for the past generation to reverse this sorry situation.


 Diane Ravitch is research professor of education at New York University and is the author ofThe Language Police. She was the primary writer for the California History/Social Science Framework adopted by the State Board of Education in 1988 and has served as consultant for history curriculum to several other states.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.