CALIFORNIA has made the most decisive move yet in what has become a national crusade to improve the quality of history textbooks. This state - at $200 million a year the nation's biggest buyer of schoolbooks - unveiled last Wednesday a new set of history guidelines that, if adhered to, will require a radical rewriting, expansion, and deepening of the story told about America in schools.
``It's important to go back to first principles,'' says California Superintendent of Education Bill Honig, chief engineer of the plan. ``History and social studies are the most powerful tools in the education of youngsters, but they aren't doing the job. Kids are coming out untutored.''
In the past two years, nearly 20 studies and educators of all political stripe have criticized history texts - for everything from ignoring the vital role of religious ideas in history, to a commercialism that emphasizes glitzy graphics and design over content.
California's new requirements, titled the ``History-Social Science Framework,'' will require publishers to solve such problems: They must tell history as a dramatic narrative story; restore myths, legends, heroes, and villains; opt for deeper study of critical moments; focus on ``literacy'' in ethics, civics, democracy, economics, and geography; and introduce concepts of character, moral issues, inner strengths, and evils.
Especially emphasized will be ``historical empathy'' - to give students the background and content necessary for an ``emotional, imaginative involvement'' with the pressures, options, ideas, and causes that led to historymaking. ``Take the Protestant Reformation,'' says Mr. Honig. ``Its idea of individual dignity before God is part of the development of the idea of democracy. It broke up social class. Kids have to know that. But the books don't talk about those connections.''
To cover all this material, California requires three years each of American and world history. New books will be needed for all 12 grades.
California made headlines in 1985 when it refused to adopt biology texts that inadequately dealt with the subject of evolution. Publishers - surprised at Honig's resolve - scurried to oblige.
In the case of history texts, publishers have until 1990 to improve. ``If the criteria aren't met, we won't adopt them,'' Honig says.
But the big question posed by publishers, educators, and officials at the announcement here Wednesday is: Will other ``adoption states'' go along with the California ``Framework''?
``Adoption states'' are the 22 states that buy their books in bulk. California and Texas, the two largest, tend to direct curriculum for the nation. (Research shows that 90 percent of classroom teaching comes from textbooks.)
``Will this `Framework' be adopted in other states? If so, fine,'' says Jack Roelker of Macmillan Publishing Company. ``If not, there's going to be an economic issue here.''
Producing 12 new books could cost a publisher anywhere from $10 to $80 million. ``If we have to spend $80 million to capture $40 million, forget it,'' said an executive. ``We can't do that kind of customizing. If other states go along, that's different. But I'm not sure California has its act together as much as it thinks.'' Honig says publishers won't do anything they don't have to.
Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Connecticut, Oregon, West Virginia, and New Mexico are interested in change. ``For once we have the curriculum driving the process,'' says Gerald Perry, a West Virginia education official.
``We would like to work with other states in a collaborative manner to improve the books,'' says David Ashburn of Florida's Department of Education.
Regardless of what other states do, California is sticking to its guns, says Honig. The state has already revised and distributed achievement tests built around the new framework. New teacher training is under way.
Honig is gambling that the recent groundswell of interest in history, and the reaction to student ignorance of it, will carry the day. ``We will fight it philosophically,'' Honig told publishers. ``You have to make a judgment if this is just California, or if in two years it's going to be everywhere. I think too many people, intellectual leaders, are saying now, `This is the way to go.'''
So far, the groundswell shows no sign of abating. The Bradley Commission, made up mostly of historians, including C. Vann Woodward and William McNeil, published reports in October on improving the teaching of history.
Two weeks ago, a report on research in cognitive thinking and elementary history books repeated what many scholars felt intuitively. The study, by Isabel Beck of the University of Pittsburgh, shows that students don't retain reading matter unless it has clear goals and sequence, adequate background knowledge, and explains ideas in a concrete way, using cause and effect relationships.
The past year has seen two best-sellers the subject: E.D. Hirsch's ``Cultural Literacy,'' which argues that students deprived of a common core of cultural knowledge cannot learn and participate in society; and Allen Bloom's ``The Closing of the American Mind,'' on the demise of ideals and values in the structures of higher education.
Add to that Paul Gagnon's study in July of the lack of democratic context in world history books, and ``What Do Our 17-year-olds Know?'' by Chester E. Finn Jr. of the US Department of Education and Diane Ravitch of Columbia Teachers College. Dr, Ravitch is a principal author of the California ``Framework.''
Dr. Finn said here that content is the most important new area of school reform: ``I don't think anything more important in the field of education is happening in America than the conversation on this subject. There's no subject in need of greater renovation than social studies, and there is no state of greater consequence to national education goings-on than California.''
Educators point out that history books, unlike physics or math books that are neutral, reflect highly charged issues of national identity.
``History books generate a special kind of heat,'' says educator Gilbert Sewall, who just finished an assessment of history textbook quality. ``What they include, how they are slanted, has a lot to do with the next generation's understanding of this country.''