In Teaching History, No Single View of the Past Prevails

History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past

By Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn

Alfred A. Knopf

308 pp., $26

'What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?" asked the lyrics of satirist Tom Paxton a generation ago. "I learned our government must be strong./ It's always right and never wrong..../ That's what I learned in school."

Should the role of America's classrooms be to serve as incubators of patriotism or as launching pads for unfettered inquiries into even the darkest corners of the history of our nation and the world? Does history teach values or pose questions? Is it a list of dates, events, and set answers, or a never-ending quest for new insights?

The authors of "History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past" found themselves at the heart of this national debate when they played key roles in the effort to draft The National History Standards in the early 1990s.

In all, some 30 organizations and 6,000 parents, history teachers, school administrators, curriculum specialists, librarians, professional historians, and educations groups participated.

But in the fall of 1994, even before the standards were released, the enterprise came under a withering attack. The good and the traditional elements of American history were being given short shrift, wrote former Reagan administration official Lynne Cheney in the opening salvo, a Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

Other conservatives, including radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, joined in with charges that a capitulation to forces of political correctness was under way, and that the negative and the obscure in American history were receiving unmerited attention. The nadir came when the US Senate censured the standards in January 1995.

In writing this book, historians Gary Nash and Ross Dunn and curriculum expert Charlotte Crabtree set out to explain why and how things went wrong. As historians, they try mightily to write as objective an account as possible, considering that their point of view is from inside a blast furnace being stoked by their mostly conservative critics.

Looking back from less than two years' perspective, the authors now believe that despite the acrimonious debate much of value has taken place. The good history teaching going on in many public schools has received attention. And despite the attacks, by the spring of 1997, more than 70,000 of the original and revised versions of the National History Standards were already in circulation, with 28 states making use of them.

In many ways, even the furor itself was healthy, the editors say. "Lively debate over the meaning of the past and its relation to today's affairs does not signal national disunity and deterioration," they write. "Rather it is a sign of a vibrant democracy."

To put the standards controversy in context, the authors show how differing views of the nation's history have sprouted from its very beginnings.

Most Americans know that the Civil War has been taught much differently in Northern and Southern states. But many fewer know the story of David Saville Muzzey, who published a popular high school history text in 1911 that included suggestions that reforms were needed in American society.

A plan to attack the textbook as unpatriotic, led by a Hearst newspaper columnist, included "hyperbolic, overheated language; distort[ing] the content of the books; flood[ing] the press with scary stories denouncing the corruption of children's minds; and enlist[ing] support from national associations," all tactics that would be used against the history standards, the authors say.

Though some efforts have been made by conservatives to write "counter standards," the authors say they and their critics are coming together on one point: No effort should be made to try to construct a "final and definitive version of our nation's or the world's history." Those decisions are best left to state and local officials.

Among the authors other recommendations:

* Schools shouldn't buy into the "false dichotomy" that they must teach either the "facts" or "analysis" of history. Both are necessary for good historical scholarship.

* European history, "its events, turning points, ideas, philosophies, religions, literature, and art," must be taught the authors conclude. But this is not "synonymous with the history of mankind."

* The teaching of non-Western cultures, so-called multiculturalism, must stop emphasizing differences, the "other"-ness of cultures and instead seek to show the unique contributions and essential traits that each culture adds to mankind's diversity.

"History on Trial" offers an important resource to parents, teachers, administrators, government officials, or anyone trying to understand how history can be most effectively taught in the 1990s. Brightly written and solidly researched, it is itself a model of good scholarship, bringing light to a troubled chapter in recent American history.

* Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.

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