The Making of History Standards
High school and college teachers across the country helped develop the national guidelines for teaching history
BOSTON — NATIONAL standards for teaching United States and world history in grades K-12 were intended as guidelines for states and localities. Even before the official release of the world-history standards last week, however, they were being cast as battle lines.
Lynne Cheney, a former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), fired an opening round with an Oct. 20 opinion article in the Wall Street Journal that blasted the standards as an attempt at politically motivated ``official knowledge.'' She focused on the relative absence of familiar white male figures like Robert E. Lee and Thomas Edison.
Her attack was joined by radio commentator Rush Limbaugh and others who voiced doubts about the value of any ``standards'' propagated in Washington. It was Ms. Cheney, ironically, who authorized NEH funding for the history-standards project back in 1992.
What critics ignore, according to Gary Nash, co-chair of the national council that formulated the standards, is the process through which the three documents - for US history, world history, and special guidelines for grades K-4 - emerged.
No ``secret group'' came up with this material, says Mr. Nash, who teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Rather, he says, a collection of history teachers and professors from all over the country met during the past two years and pooled ideas, made suggestions, and sometimes hotly debated what should be included. Comments were sought from more than 30 national organizations, ranging from ethnic-history associations to church groups to teachers' unions. The product, in three volumes, totals over 600 pages.
Most of these pages are filled with suggested ways that students at various grade levels can achieve a particular standard. The suggestions for classroom work came largely from the dozens of high school history teachers involved in the deliberations, Nash says.
Michele Foreman, a history teacher from Middlebury, Vt., who participated in the process, says a dozen teachers might sit down with two college scholars. The scholars, she says, were there primarily to check accuracy.
Ms. Foreman worked on the standards for world history and suspects that arena could become as controversial as the US standards, since the recommendations veer sharply away from ``the old Western-civilization model.'' The intent, she says, is less ``multicultural'' than ``transcultural'' - attempting to trace the ``world forces,'' from economic theories to religious movements, at work throughout history.
As with the US standards, the types of study suggested in the world-history volume could strike many readers as more akin to a college curriculum than to high school work. But ``kids can think -
they really can,'' says Foreman. ``History is very messy, and kids have to get in there and wrestle with the material.''
As for the current controversy, she thinks ``it's wonderful to see people arguing about what we're teaching kids.''
Provoking thought is at the heart of the standards exercise, according to Theodore Rabb, a history professor at Princeton University and chairman of the National Council for History Education. He was involved in shaping the standards and admits to qualms about reducing emphasis on his own field, European history. ``But I wouldn't have stayed with it if I hadn't believed in the enterprise,'' he says.
The ``enterprise,'' as Mr. Rabb sees it, is to make the drama and excitement of history available to Americans before college. He notes that history has for years been the most popular major at Princeton, while in many high schools it's considered a bore.
Critics of the standards also see a conspiracy to impose one educational approach throughout the country. But final decisions on using the standards will come at the state and local level. Diane Brooks, history and social-studies unit manager for the California Department of Education, says she will use the national standards ``as a resource,'' along with the curriculum frameworks for history and geography already developed by her state.
Ms. Brooks, who had a hand in formulating the standards as president of the Council of State Social Studies Specialists, stresses that they are voluntary.
Still, local control remains a strong tradition in American education. Resistance could kick in if the pedagogical aids in the standards are seen as dictating ``how history will be taught,'' observes Tom Loveless, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School who has followed the development of national standards.
Nash's response to concerns about dictates is to point out a paragraph in the preface to the US standards, which reads: ``In undertaking this process, it was agreed that the History Standards, as finally drafted, would in fact mark a critical milestone but not the final destination in what must be an ongoing, dynamic process of improvement and revision over the years to come.''
``We had an open, democratic process and listened respectfully to all points of view,'' Nash says. To suggest that these standards, or any other approach to studying the past, is definitive or permanent would be to undercut the very discipline of history, he adds.
Didn't the ``inclusive'' nature of the standards-writing process water down the product? ``There is that tendency whenever you're trying to get that many people around one table,'' Nash admits.
``But the reason this isn't oatmeal is the bite you find in all this teacher-oriented material,'' he says. And it's in those same suggested classroom steps, where names and events are plenteous, that controversy will likely keep germinating.