Getting History Right--and Just Getting It

History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past by Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross Dunn

(Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, 318 pp., $26)

Columbus Day of 1992—the culmination of the Columbus Quincentennial. International officers of the Knights of Columbus and other assorted dignitaries gather at the Columbus monument near the U.S. Capitol building for a ceremony honoring the great discoverer. The highlight of the event is to be an address by Attorney General William Barr praising Columbus and the Western values he brought to the New World.

But a funny thing happens before Barr can speak. A young man from a Washington, D.C. Catholic Worker house shinnies up the monument—no small feat in the case of this lofty and ungainly lump of stone—and dumps red paint on it. The gesture is meant to call attention to the genocide of native peoples of the Americas that Columbus's critics say began with him and has continued right up to now.

What is history? Whose version of the past is true? The serio-comic events transpiring on that sunny October afternoon five and a half years ago reflected in microcosm a conflict over just such matters that is now being fought in macrocosm all across the landscape of American culture.

In that conflict, one of the major ideological engagements of recent years was just getting underway as the skirmish at the Columbus monument took place. I refer to the controversy surrounding the drafting and publication of voluntary national standards for the teaching of U.S. and world history.

This ambitious, government-funded project began in 1992. Published two years later in three volumes, the history standards at once became targets of fierce criticism on talk shows and op-ed pages. Conservatives decried them as products of politically correct multiculturalism, creatures of feminism, and special-interest pressure, infused with the mentality of victimology and biased against traditional American and Western values.

Things eventually reached such a pass that the Senate in January 1995 voted 99-1 to express its disapproval of the history standards. Had all the senators read them? That seems improbable at best. In any event, at that point supporters of the history standards wisely beat a strategic retreat. After a further process of review, revised standards were published in 1996—this time without much fuss, the original critics having moved on to other issues. As for the first edition, Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross Dunn write with apparently unconscious humor that it's become “an important artifact of American history and a collector's item.”

History on Trial recounts this story from the culture war in painstaking, indeed tedious, detail. The authors were intimately involved in the standards project, and to hear them tell it, were innocent victims of a scurrilous right-wing assault in which their handiwork was grossly misrepresented—for essentially political reasons-by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and a legion of Limbaugh clones.

Their book suffers from a gratingly self-righteous tone and from an annoying habit of demolishing straw men. They do not serve their cause well when they accuse their opponents of advocating a version of history that would do no more than “rhapsodize over Western moral successes”—a charge that is simply nonsense. Still, they have a point. A good deal of the attack on the history standards does appear to have been unfair and/or uninformed; the most extreme voices of the right were raised-loudly—in the debate; the standards apparently fell prey to an ongoing ideological conflict larger than themselves.

But along with having a point, Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn also miss the point much of the time. This is true of their strenuously repeated claim that the process by which the standards were developed was exceptionally open and representative. Anyone reading their account with some prior experience of the way of the world is likely to see here a process “open” only to insiders and “representative” of approved points of view. This is not to say it was sinister or, as these things go, exceptionally manipulative; but an exercise in pure Athenian democracy it most emphatically was not.

It is difficult to say who, besides the authors' ideological allies, will find much of interest in this overly detailed and consistently one-sided book. More interesting to those concerned about the issues was a “forum” on the standards debate featuring contributions by eleven professional historians and published in the winter issue of the Phi Beta Kappa quarterly The American Scholar.

Here a one-paragraph introduction frames the questions more clearly and realistically than anything in History on Trial: “What history should our children learn? Should this history feature the patriotism, heroism, and ideals of the nation? Or should it feature the injustices, defeats, and hypocrisy of its leaders and dominant classes? It is easy enough to answer that it ought to teach both, but, in the workaday business of teaching history this is more easily declared than done. Behind the question of what history should our children learn, is the question of what ought to be the emphasis of that history: success or failure, victory or defeat, ideals met or ideals betrayed?”

As a practical matter, several contributors say, the problem in the teaching of history in American schools is not how it ought to be done but that so little history of any sort gets taught. In 1995, recalls Diane Ravitch, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that 57% of U.S. high school seniors scored “below basic” in their knowledge of American history—and it is impossible to score lower than that. As of 1990, C. Vann Woodward remarks, students could graduate from 78% of American colleges without taking a course in the history of Western civilization, while high school students could satisfy their “social studies” requirement with courses in drug education, current events, and sex education.

“Never mind about standards,” one is tempted to shout. “Just teach them something!”

As for the history standards themselves, for my money the most sensible remark is John Lukacs's: “[They] are by their very nature, ephemeral. In the best case their formulation can be only a halting, and inaccurate, expression of a consensus among well—meaning historians of the present time, necessarily larded with compromises.”

Bet Rush Limbaugh wishes he'd said that.

Russell Shaw writes from Washington.

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