Deeper Issue Underlies the Firing of the House Historian

SPEAKER Newt Gingrich, quick on the draw and quick on the withdraw, fired his new House historian, Christina Jeffrey, as soon as he learned that the New York Times was about to make her an issue of the kind that he needs like a hole in the head.

It came down to a few words she had used in 1986 in evaluating for the Department of Education a grant application from a Boston foundation called ``Facing History and Ourselves.'' Its curriculum is designed to teach junior high school students about the Holocaust and, from it, to derive lessons about their moral obligations in the world today.

Professor Jeffrey wrote that the course lacked balance and that you don't educate people by teaching them to deal with problems they do not face. And then the words that came back to do her in: ``The Nazi point of view, however unpopular, is still a point of view and is not presented, nor is that of the Ku Klux Klan.''

Mr. Gingrich saw political dynamite in those few words. But there was a deeper issue. A controversy over Germany then masked an ideological controversy over America now.

The curriculum materials for ``Facing History'' make clear that students should learn from the Holocaust that they have a responsibility to deal with challenges to American democracy, with issues of class, race, and gender, and that students should ask themselves who is responsible for helping the homeless today. They raise issues such as racist demagogy and the use of radio to excite emotions.

The opposition to ``Facing History'' was typified by a letter Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, wrote in 1987 to William Kristol, who was then chief of staff to Secretary of Education William Bennett. She emphasized that she had nothing against teaching about the Holocaust, but that this course would have ``adverse, negative, and offensive psychological effects'' on the young.

As examples, she cited reactions by some of the children who had taken the course. One wrote, ``I have learned that there is seldom a right or wrong, but rather a right or left.'' Another wrote, ``What I did learn will probably change the way I think and look on life for the rest of my life.'' And yet another, ``Even in this seemingly perfect country we are cruel, we are hateful. We are obsessed with ourselves.''

All this Ms. Schlafly called ``psychological manipulation,'' turning children into ``guinea pigs in the classroom.'' That backed up Ms. Jeffrey, whose evaluation said the course embraced ``Maoist teachings'' and concentrated too much on Germany, not enough on the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, and Cambodia.

Professor Jeffrey's adverse review, along with another that spoke of ``anti-Christian bias,'' helped to kill the $70,000 grant for ``Facing History'' in 1986. But, in 1988, the late Rep. Ted Weiss held House hearings that resulted in the restoration of funding. One of the foundation's more recent materials is a guide to the film ``Schindler's List.'' It raises issues such as, ``The common ground between slavery and the Holocaust is the pain of racial hatred .... Stereotyping can lead to prejudice and discrimination.'' The right kind of values to teach children or left-wing brainwashing?

That is the deeper issue that embroiled Gingrich's historian friend and the history of the Holocaust in a searing ideological controversy that is not yet resolved. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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