- Lynne Cheney comments on the National History Standards
- Lynne Cheney: parents and other citizens concerned that schools teach an accurate and balanced account of the American past must continue to be vigilant
- Parents should insist on a recall of the thousands of volumes of the National History Standards already distributed
Imagine a version of American history in which race, ethnicity and gender provide the overriding theme. Such a telling of the American story would distort one of our country’s most important contributions to the world: the unique insistence on the individual that has characterized us from the beginning. But that is precisely the distortion endemic in both the U.S. history and world history volumes of the controversial National History Standards, developed at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Social scientists Robert Lerner and Althea Nagai, working with historian John Fonte of the Committee to Review National Standards, which I chair, reviewed these volumes. They considered the standards themselves, which set forth what students should know (e.g., “how the American Revolution involved multiple movements among the new nation’s many groups to reform American society”). And they looked at the multiplicity of examples that the volumes offer of what students might actually do in the classroom to achieve recommended knowledge. In analyzing the U.S. volume, for example, Mr. Lerner and Ms. Nagai compared occurrences of the race, ethnicity and gender theme with occurrences of the theme of political freedom. They discovered that race, ethnicity and gender received three times as much emphasis as political freedom in the standards and twice as much in the examples."They discovered that race, ethnicity and gender received three times as much emphasis as political freedom in the standards and twice as much in the examples."
Critics of the National History Standards, myself among them, have tended to focus on the teaching examples, which have provided dramatic evidence of how skewed is the version of history presented by the UCLA professors. I have felt obliged to speak out about the volumes, since as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities I signed a grant helping make the project possible. The professors in charge of the project had presented the NEH with a balanced and reasonable model of what they intended to do. The volumes they presented in 1994, nearly two years after I had left NEH, could not be described that way. Lack of balance permeates the volumes. Throughout the world history document, for instance, positive words like “contribution,” “accomplishment,” and “achievement” are associated with the non-West far more frequently than with Western civilization. The word “achievement” occurs nearly twice as often in a non-Western as in a Western context in both the standards and examples. In the U.S. document, the Great Depression looms large. In the standards alone, it is cited 14 times while prosperity is not mentioned once. Diversity is mentioned eight times, but liberty not once.
These findings assume special importance in light of an effort by the Council for Basic Education, a private, nonprofit organization concerned with schools, to salvage the National History Standards.
Two panels of academics, teachers and civic leaders were convened by the CBE to examine the UCLA documents. They summarized their conclusions in a press release last Wednesday (the full report has yet to be released) in which they drew a sharp distinction between the standards and the examples. While allowing that the standards need improvement, they concluded that “once detached from the teaching examples, the proposed standards provide a reasonable set of expectations for learning and a solid basis for strengthening history teaching.” The Lerner and Nagai analysis makes clear that this is not so.
Still, despite the panels’ conclusion, their work has a positive aspect. It shows that citizens, if they get involved, can take steps toward reclaiming history from academic revisionists. The press release summarizing the panels’ findings acknowledges some of the most serious failings in the history documents. Among them are loaded language (at one point, students are asked to compare encounters between “intrusive European migrants and indigenous people”) and a failure to give scientific and technological achievements their due (those missing from the U.S. document include Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, and Neil Armstrong).
There are a multitude of other alterations that the CBE should insist upon, but the fact that some strong criticism has been voiced by panels that include academic historians is noteworthy. However, without the protest against the standards from across the country, it is doubtful that this would have happened.
"Parents and other citizens concerned that schools teach an accurate and balanced account of the American past must continue to be vigilant."
Parents and other citizens concerned that schools teach an accurate and balanced account of the American past must continue to be vigilant. The academics at UCLA are supposed to revise their work in light of the as-yet-unreleased report from the CBE panels. But if the report--and revisions--do not go beyond the findings summarized in the press release, we will almost surely end up with badly distorted history in our schools. The Goals 2000 Act is offering millions of dollars to states to develop standards, and whatever the UCLA professors come up with is likely to be very influential when people in Oregon, Wyoming, or Maryland sit down to decide what students should know about history. Indeed, the work of the UCLA professors has already had widespread impact. They have distributed 30,000 copies of the National History Standards across the nation, and despite the barrage of criticism against these publications--99 U.S. senators condemned them--one can see their influence in a number of states, including Delaware and New York. According to Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, textbook publishers are also making use of them.
As the UCLA professors work on revisions, perhaps parents should insist on a recall of the thousands of volumes of the National History Standards already distributed. We regularly expect manufacturers to call back toys and car seats that endanger our children’s physical selves. Should we expect any less of those whose creations imperil the next generation’s historical understanding?
Lynne V. Cheney is a senior fellow at AEI.