Battling Over History

WHEN national standards for teaching American and world history were published last November, they met a chorus of boos. Leading the chorus was Lynne Cheney, chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities when funding for the project was approved under President Bush. She scored the standards for shortchanging familiar figures like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison.

Criticism crescendoed again recently, when the Senate passed, nearly unanimously, a resolution condemning the standards. Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington, author of the resolution, spurned them as ''ideology masquerading as history.''

The ideology at work, according to critics, comes under the heading of ''multiculturalism'' or ''political correctness'' -- a tendency to overemphasize and romanticize non-Western civilizations and nonwhite historical figures.

From this perspective, the skirmish over history standards is part of the larger ''cultural wars'' over values and civic philosophies.

On the other side of the battle line are educators who spent two years shaping the standards. In their view, the documents represent a consensus forged by drawing in ideas from a range of groups and individuals -- historical associations, state curriculum-planning groups, teacher unions, and educational administrators, to name a few. The only ideology at work, say those who helped form the standards, is that now being imposed by Mrs. Cheney and other conservative critics.

In the midst of the charges being hurled on the Senate floor, and in newspapers, here are a few facts:

*The standards are not a federal mandate imposed on local schools. They are voluntary guidelines that any state or school district may choose to use -- or reject.

*They are lengthy, complex documents that combine general educational themes with pages of suggested classroom applications.

*On both sides of this controversy are people who feel that too many schoolchildren have been deprived of meaningful instruction in history, which ought to be the most interesting of classes, not the most boring.

The debate over the standards should lead to constructive revision of the documents and progress toward better history instruction.

If it only politicizes the subject, it will be a sad new chapter in American history.

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