Gary Nash, "Reflections on the National History Standards"

National Forum (Summer 1997)


In a country where arguing about politics, baseball, and every other conceivable topic is a national pastime, it should be no surprise that we argue about history -- particularly about how to teach the past to young students in the schools. Yet, in the heated controversy over the National History Standards so much ink was spilled and television and radio time occupied that future historians may conclude that the three plainly presented curricular guidelines making up the standards represent a special moment in our very old arguments about rethinking the past. This essay examines the genesis of the National History Standards, the controversy over them, and what their future is likely to be.

As with national standards in science, civics, geography, and the arts, the history standards originated in the National Education Goals adopted by the nation's fifty governors in 1989; in these goals, state leaders specified one of the key goals as the creation of challenging discipline-based standards. Endorsed by President George Bush, these goals led to a Congressionally appointed National Council on Education Standards in 1992. As a result of this mandate, funding for writing the history standards came from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Department of Education, headed by Lynne Cheney and Lamar Alexander respectively. The task of coordinating the writing of standards fell to the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA, earlier funded by NEH.


Aware that history was a dynamic field and a contested terrain, the History Standards Project, cochaired by Charlotte Crabtree, an expert on K-12 social studies, and me, Director of the National Center for History in the Schools, built a structure for involving dozens of national organizations concerned with history education. In sharp contrast to how curricular frameworks are constructed in other countries (usually in ministries of education), the Project cast a nationwide net to maximize democratic involvement. Components of the Project included the following:

*a policy-setting body, called the National Council for History Standards, consisting of the presidents of nine major organizations and twenty-two other nationally recognized administrators, historians, and teachers.

*two taskforces of teachers in World and United States history -- drawn equally from elementary, middle, and high schools - who would work with academic historians to draft the standards.

*nine organizational focus groups that would critique drafts of the standards as they were generated.

*a national forum, consisting of thirty-one national organizations that would have input into the creation of the standards and review the penultimate draft.

Whatever the outcome of the resulting history standards, the project's codirectors were determined that they would be created through open debate, multiple reviews, and the active participation of the largest organizations of history educators in the nation. This collaboration and consensus-building between K-12 teachers and college historians was altogether unprecedented. Never in the long history of public education, reaching back more than three hundred years, had such an attempt been made to raise the level of history education. Never before had such a broad-based group of history educators from all parts of the country gathered to work collaboratively on such an enterprise. The History Standards Project represented the building of bridges between two groups of largely separated educators. These bridges may even outlast the standards themselves.

It took the teacher-scholar task forces thirty-two months, five drafts, and mountains of critiques before the supervising National Council for History Standards decided that three books were ready for publication. In November 1994, NCHS released National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience (Grades 5-12); National Standards for World History: Exploring Paths to the Present (Grades 5-12); and National Standards for Grades K-4: Expanding Children's World in Time and Space. Everyone involved in creating these three books understood that they were to be purely voluntary guidelines rather than federally mandated, national curricula. It would have taken a naive and historically illiterate participant to ignore the nation's long and revered tradition of locally controlled education. Neither a curriculum nor a textbook, the standards were designed to set forth the most essential understandings that American youngsters should master by the end of the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. Projects in setting standards for civics, geography, science, and the arts proceeded in exactly the same way. All the national standards had one thing in common: to provide students with a more comprehensive, challenging, and thought-provoking education in the nation's public schools.


Rush Limbaugh told his television followers that the National History Standards were created by "a secret group" at UCLA, and many other hostile critics of the standards, such as Lynne Cheney's employee John Fonte, repeatedly called me the "principal author" of the guidebooks. This was a clever way of persuading the public that these were standards from hell. After all, it was much easier to convince people who had not read the books that the guidelines were deeply biased and unbalanced if they could be pictured as the product of one person's mind or the minds of a small group rather than the laborious collaborative product of a large number of educators, classroom teachers being foremost among them. Even-two years after the controversy began, conservative critics were playing "pin the tail on the donkey," assigning authorship to the directors of the History Standards Project and ignoring the participating organizations and teacher-task-force members from Umatilla, Florida, to Soldotna, Alaska, all of whom were acknowledged and listed in the books themselves. Before commenting on the criticisms of the standards, it is important to specify three signature features of the guidelines to which critics paid no attention. These features are:


1 ) A new framework for critical thinking and active learning that recommends five categories of historical thinking essential to achieving historical literacy: a) chronological thinking; b) historical comprehension; c) historical analysis and interpretation; d) historical research capabilities; and e) historical issues-analysis and decision-making. By highlighting these historical-thinking skills, the participating organizations sounded a clarion call for active learning while discouraging teaching that relies on rote memorization of information divorced from contexts of historical meaning.

2) Repeated references to primary documents that would allow students to read and hear authentic voices from the past and that would take them into different eras and different societies with a "you-are-there" effect that even the best textbooks seldom create.

3) Using literature, art, architecture, music, and other rich sources to better allow the student to understand the warp and woof of past ages, peoples, and cultural perspectives.


Rather than commenting on these signal features of the history standards, critics focused on the perennial topic of public contention -- political correctness and multiculturalism. The charges of op-ed essayists and radio/television talk-show hosts mostly echoed Lynne Cheney's harsh attack on the standards in the Wall Street Journal that began the controversy. Her line was that the standards suffered from "multicultural excess," a "grim and gloomy" portrayal of American history, "a politicized history," and, in the World History Standards, disparaged the West and gave it short shrift. Using a catchy apocalyptic title "The End of History," Cheney indicted the history standards as an almost anti-American campaign waged by the nation's historians. Many other essayists employed disparaging headlines such as "history bandits," "kidnapping history," and "the hijacking of American history" to warn the public of the damage being perpetrated upon their children. Revising history (which has been going on since Thuycidides and Herodotus) became a suspect activity.

Looking back on these fulminations, historians will surely notice that the attacks occurred in the context of the Republican victories in the November 1994 Congressional elections and continued into the campaigns for the presidential election of 1996. Among the fiercest followers of Cheney's line of attack were Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan, and Bob Dole, the latter two maligning the history standards as a regular feature of their stump speeches for the Republican nomination. Just as the Smithsonian's proposed exhibit on the fiftieth anniversary of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan became a heated political issue in late 1994, attracting attention on Capitol Hill, so did the National History Standards become a political football.

Controversy over the history standards hardly touched on the way that the guidelines reflected historical scholarship of the last generation. For those involved in writing these curricular frameworks, it made no more sense to base them on the historical knowledge of the 1920s or 1940s than for the science educators to have based the chemistry and physics standards on pre-Einsteinian science. Thus, one of the criteria governing the writing of the standards stated: "Standards should be intellectually demanding, reflect the best historical scholarship, and promote active questioning and learning rather than passive absorption of facts, dates, and names." With this criterion in mind, the many organizations participating in building the standards applauded the attention given to previously neglected segments of human history. In the case of U.S. history, this focus meant incorporating standards that reflect the rich and sober scholarship of recent decades on women, ethnic and racial groups, labor, and popular culture. In a country priding itself on having a government of, for, and by the people, it was thought that a history of, for, and by the people might befit a democracy.


As it turned out, the prized accomplishment of the standards in the view of the hundreds of participating educators became a bloody flag to wave in front of the public for a band of op-ed writers and a very small number of mossback historians. For these critics, the new work in social history woven into the history standards, which was meant to bring to life large portions of American society about which most textbooks said little, took up too much of the space that preoccupied traditional historians. If women, African Americans, and ordinary people of all kinds had more than small slices of the pie, then famous white males, politics, diplomacy, battlefield war, and capital's triumphs would not have enough pie for themselves. In this conception of a zero-sum game, critics ignored the analogy of how a twenty-minute piano concerto played only on white keys can be enriched immeasurably without adding a single minute to the playing time by using the black keys as well.

In the view of the critics, the more inclusive approach to recovering the past smacked of grimness and gloominess. To be sure, it is not possible to recover the history of women, African Americans, religious minorities, Native Americans, laboring Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans without addressing issues of conflict, exploitation, and the compromising of the national ideals set forth by the Revolutionary generation. It is similarly impossible to incorporate the history of Africa, Asia, and Latin America into a world history curriculum without diminishing the scope given to Europe. To this extent, the standards counseled a less self-congratulatory history of the United States and a less triumphalist Western Civilization orientation toward world history.


Reduced to its core, the controversy thus turned on how history can be used to train up the nation's youth. Almost all of the critics of the history standards argued that young Americans would be better served if they study the history presented before the 1960s, when allegedly liberal and radical historians "politicized" the discipline and abandoned an "objective" history in favor of pursuing their personal political agendas. For Bob Dole, "an embarrassed to be American" crowd of "intellectual elites" created the noxious history standards, bent on a campaign "to disparage America and disown the ideas and traditions of the West." His bottom line on the history standards was that they were "worse than external enemies." For Newt Gingrich, Americans always had an agreed-upon history until the mid-1960s when "cultural elites" launched "a calculated effort. . . to discredit this civilization and replace it with a culture of irresponsibility that is incompatible with American freedoms as we have known them." For the reactionary historian John Diggins, women's history and ethnic history simply amount to "the cult of multiculturalism" spawned by "the antipatriotic legacy of the Sixties generation." In this formulation, revisionist history is unpatriotic history.


On the other side of the cultural divide stands a large majority of historians. For many generations, even when the profession was a guild of white Protestant males of the upper class, historians have never regarded themselves as anti-patriots because they revise history or examine sordid chapters of it. Indeed, they expose and critique the past in order to improve American society and to protect dearly won gains. In the main, they cleave to the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson set forth in his 1841 address titled "Man the Reformer." "What is man born for," asked the Boston Brahmin of the artisan apprentices he was addressing, "but to be a reformer; a remaker of what man has made; a renouncer of lies."

The history standards controversy laid bare competing meanings of patriotism and the question of how to inculcate the ideal of citizenship in young students. For the Cheney-led cohort, children who learn about the Ku Klux Klan and McCarthyism will not learn to love their country. It will embarrass and make cynics of them. For historians, the approach favored by critics is sugar-coated history that will make cynics of children because they will grow up to find that the bland or celebratory history books have excluded or misrepresented the realities of past life.


This is not a new argument. Historians have periodically been at sword's point with vociferous segments of the public, especially those of deeply conservative bent. The controversy of the 1990s is, in fact, a replay of similar controversies in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s. The positions taken by today's adversaries to the history standards are uncannily similar to an acrid exchange in the 1930s involving a new set of textbooks in history and social studies used across the country. The textbook author urged teachers to teach children to pursue "fair mindedness and honesty, to see clearly both sides of an historical controversy." Instill in students "tolerant understanding." Ask over and over: "Why do you think so? Are you open-minded about the matter? What is your authority? Have you considered all sides of the case?" From the other side of the cultural chasm, an outraged patriot flayed this point of view for trying "to give a child an unbiased viewpoint instead of teaching him real Americanism. All the old histories taught my country right or wrong. That's the point of view we want our children to adopt. We can't afford to teach them to be unbiased and let them make up their own minds."


In the 1930s incident recounted above, Harold Rugg, a faculty member at Columbia's Teachers College and a textbook author, was indicted by the Corresponding Secretary of the Daughters of the Colonial Wars. In the short term, Rugg was the loser. His books were banned in school districts all over the country because of his inquiry-based approach to history education and his alleged contamination of history books with a "collectivist" slant. But in the long run, Rugg was the winner because today only a small minority of teachers believe it is un-American to get students to look at both sides of a historical controversy, to see that people in the past had sharp differences and sometimes fought bloodily about them, to understand that history is not simply getting the facts straight but instead a never-ending rereading of the past, and to appreciate that history is about the shameful as well as the heroic and that not all the heroes are of one color, gender, or class.


The National History Standards, used voluntarily and piecemeal, are very likely to find a place among curriculum developers and teachers looking for ways to meld historical content with historical thinking. The World History Standards are also likely to become a template for history instruction because no textbook exists, in this country or any other, that has drawn upon the spectacular efflorescence of scholarship in African, Asian, European, Latin American, and Middle Eastern history to construct a truly global framework for studying humankind over many millennia.

The standards will remain useful for another reason. By fully including the study of previously ignored groups in our history and by creating a truly globe-encircling world history, the history school teachers and academic historians who constructed the standards understood that history, so long as it remains a fluid and dynamic field, will mingle commemoration and critique. None believed that Americans have ever agreed upon a single unified version of the past, nor should they if our nation is to remain democratic. It is only in authoritarian countries that students study from an agreed-upon history. This is official history - of the kind that the introduction to the National History Standards explicitly disclaimed. "In undertaking this process," the preface points out, "it was widely agreed that the History Standards, as finally drafted, would in fact mark a critical advance but not the final destination in what must be an ongoing, dynamic process of improvement and revision over the years to come."


In fact, such a revision followed publication of the original standards by about eighteen months. These revisions were greatly aided by constructive suggestions of two panels of teachers, academic historians, and public figures who pored over the original standards and the various criticisms and defenses of them. They wanted more weight given to the twentieth century in world history. They suggested more adroit ways to incorporate women's history. They urged more material on Russian and Southeast Asian history. They recommended greater emphasis on unifying elements in polyglot America. They stressed the importance of science and technology in the unfolding of the human past. All of these recommendations found a place in the revised standards.

The revisions, however, responded hardly at all to the arch-conservative attacks on the standards as first published. To have done so would have been to break faith with the rich scholarship in American and world history over the last half-century and to discredit the work of hundreds of school teachers and college historians who created a framework for the improvement of history education.

The controversy over the history standards has already inspired student papers, master's theses, and even doctoral dissertations. By itself, this tells us that history matters and that the history standards continue to matter. In an unexpected way, they have become a kind of litmus test for the nation at large. As one historian has put it, Americans, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Watergate debacle, seemed "capable of looking at their own history soberly, that they [were ready] to avoid the snares of trivializing, sanitizing, and sanctifying the past into which other nations have fallen." This was a basic premise of the standards-makers. If the premise is unsound, women's history, African American history, indeed the history of and for all the people will have to be proven wrongheaded and dispensable. That is about as likely to happen as that a tolling bell can be unrung.


Beyond the controversy, what will be remembered and what will count in the long run is the collaboration that occurred between teachers at every level in the schools and historians in the colleges and universities. This unprecedented joint effort, both in the constructing of the standards and in the airing of controversies surrounding them, represents an important step in connecting two communities of history educators who have been separated for many decades by a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon. Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Organization of American Historians has sponsored meetings at dozens of colleges around the nation where teachers of history at all levels of education have come together for a few hours, a day, or a weekend. They have examined the history standards, discussed the controversies, and most important -- talked history. Many reports indicate that these meetings have been mutually satisfying when the gap between school and college teachers gives way to common concerns about teaching history - what to teach and how to teach it. Something can be said for the annealing effect of a controversy that called into question the striking scholarship of the last generation and even the practice of history as a continuing debate about the past.


Gary B. Nash is Professor of History at UCLA, the Director of the National Center for History in the Schools, and coauthor, with Charlotte Crabtree and Ross Dunn, of History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). He served as president of the Organization of American Historians in 1994-95 and has been recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Excerpted below are a few additional passages by Gary Nash from a 1995 essay in the Journal of Social History.


The attention to social history over recent decades has no doubt raised new questions, not the least of which is the problem of developing master narratives to take the place of the narrowly constructed and distorted mega-stories of the past. Critics see the new history of women, laboring people, religious and racial minorities producing a hopelessly chaotic version of the past in which no grand synthesis, overarching themes, or coherent structure is visible. This is the lamented triumph of pluribus without unum. But it needs to be remembered that the old coherence and the old overarching themes were those derived from studying mostly the experiences of much less than the whole of the American people and from grounding the megahistorical constructs nearly exclusively in the Western experience. The contribution of social history is to show that the overarching themes and grand syntheses promulgated by past historians will not hold up when we broaden our perspectives to include the history of all the people who constituted American society. If the rise of women's history or African American history or labor history has created a crisis, we must ask "whose crisis"! The crisis, in fact, is in the minds of those whose monopolistic hold on the property of history has been shattered.

Joan Wallach Scott has proposed that social history is being attacked because it "has exposed the politics by which one particular viewpoint established its predominance." Equally threatening, the rise of social history has ended forever any single interpretation or completely unified picture of American history for that matter, of any national history. By showing that many sets of Americans have experienced a particular era or movement in starkly different ways, social historians have exposed labels such as "The Jacksonian Age of the Common Man," the "Westward Movement," the "Progressive Era," or the post-1945 "Affluent Society" as the telltale labels of a narrowly conceived history. It is not new for historians to argue over a particular movement or era. For decades they have vigorously debated whether the American Revolution was radical or conservative; whether slavery was profitable or not; whether Progressivism was deeply reformist or a bandaid covering the scars of industrial capitalism. But these arguments took place within certain conceptually defined spaces where race and gender--and often class--were hardly regarded as usable categories.

The deepest threat of the new social history has been that it raises the specter of a society that never was seamlessly unified, never had an entirely common cultural standard, and never fully agreed upon what it means to be an American. . . .

The recent attacks on the new National History Standards are hardly an unprecedented phenomenon but only the latest outbreak of opposition to historical teaching and research that would challenge the traditional super-narrative. One key part of the blasts against the National History Standards brings into focus the broader indictments of social history Social history is under attack, like the History Standards, because it is not celebratory enough. The Gingrichian prescription for the nation's ills, so far as history is concerned, is to teach a stainless steel version of history, a consensual past. Social history, in contrast, undeniably covers episodes of the American experience that cannot be absorbed into happyface history. One of the critics' key strategies has been to portray the standards, particularly in their use of social history as "grim and gloomy." Lynne Cheney, copied by many other conservative op-ed pundits, points to the presentations of the Ku Klux Klan and McCarthyism as evidence of history that is too dreary. In fact, the KKK is introduced in the U. S. History Standards in a section on the 1870s when that organization was founded and again in a section on the 1920s when the Klan became a national movement. All references to McCarthyism are presented on two pages in connection with a section on the Cold War era.

The KKK and McCarthyism are somber episodes in American history. But will not students be taught valuable lessons and indeed be uplifted by learning how most Americans put the KKK and McCarthyism behind them! This is not dismal history but dismal history overcome. Can our children endow their own offspring with the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice on which the nation is founded if they never understand that these ideals must be defended against those who would abuse or annihilate them? Is it inadmissible to say that the agenda set two centuries ago is an agenda not fully accomplished?

. . . but even more to the point, the Standards take an explicit stand against official forms of history. In setting forth critical thinking skills, the Standards call for students to "differentiate between historical facts and historical intepretations." They ask students to "challenge arguments of historical inevitability," to "compare competing historical narratives," to "hold historical interpretations as tentative," and to "evaluate major debates among historians.' They urge students to examine historical eras, movements, and transformations from "multiple perspectives."

Such a formulation of history education presumes a never-ending interrogation of the past, where revision is as essential to collective memory as corrective eyeglasses are to restoring vision, clouded by astigmatisms, to the human eye. This is a renunciation of official history. In fact, the ultra-conservative attacks on the National History Standards implicitly call for an official history of the sort that has long been discarded. In my radio and tv debates with Lynne Cheney, she vented her special outrage that, having funded the writing of National History Standards, she received "version Y when she expected version X." I replied that she, as a federal official, could hardly expect to dictate the History Standards, which in fact were being crafted by hundreds of dedicated teachers and professional historians. History standards shaped in advance by a Big Sister in Washington approach would hardly be well received in the 16,000 school districts in the country, where democratic sensibilities are acute. Apparently, Gingrich, similarly, believes that because until 1965 "America had one continuous civilization" and that it had produced a unified, undifferentiated understanding of "what it meant to be an American," we can therefore write a standardized United States history) that will last forever in the schools, never to be revised.

One of the accomplishments of social history as it has been practiced in the last generation is to nourish an inquiry-based approach to history education. . . . Social history moves young learners farther from official history than ever before in this nation. It is precisely the multi-layered, multi-faceted social history of the last generation that has transcended semi-official versions of this country's development. The more diverse the history profession becomes, the more we will learn from the explorations of those who ask new questions and mine new sources. In the process, history education will leave our semi-official history farther and farther behind.