A History Lesson

HISTORY should be one of the most thought-provoking subjects in school, not a dull search through dusty names and dates. The writers of new standards for history instruction in American public schools are on target.

But their call for a revolution in how history is taught in grades K-12 has whipped up a long-smoldering battle over what should be taught. The proposed standards for US history, released Oct. 25, are said by critics to shortchange the contributions of such white male standouts as Ben Franklin and Robert E. Lee.

Lynn Cheney, who was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities when that agency first funded the history standards project, has led the charge from the right. The absence of some great heroes, and the emphasis on negative episodes like the McCarthyism of the 1950s, tends toward a history that makes it sound ``as if everything in America is wrong and grim,'' she said.

The standards-makers respond that they are simply trying to get students to wrestle with difficult issues. But comments like Cheney's highlight the emotions surrounding the study of history in the late 20th century. Issues of gender, ethnicity, and race now not only find a place in the discussion of the past, they are pushing front and center. The proposed standards reflect that movement in thought. The reaction to that intellectual force - at its most constructive a concern for balance - is equally energetic.

The current debate could bring a useful synthesis. The standards, after all, are voluntary; no federal bureaucrat can arm-twist local districts or states into applying them. Why not use the investigative methods and original thought propounded by the historians who formulated the standards to plumb the lives of figures like Franklin or General Lee, if that's what a teacher chooses, as well as to explore social movements like civil rights or unionism?

This week, the proposed standards for US history will be joined by guidelines for world history and state and community history - providing more fuel for debate, no doubt. That may not be bad, so long as some of the intellectual heat finds its way into livelier history classes.

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