Teaching the Love of History
'Political correctness' is not the motive for US History Standards
IT has been just a year now since the publication of the National Standards for History. There are two contrasting stories to tell about these controversial guidelines. The first story began last October when Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, blasted the standards in the Wall Street Journal. Academic liberals and multiculturalists, she argued, had ''hijacked'' the project in order to produce guidelines that were revisionist and ''politically correct.'' Ms. Cheney sifted through the US history standards to find a phrase here, an omitted name there that might be construed as undermining traditional American values and achievements. She charged, for example, ''that not a single one of the 31 standards mentions the Constitution.'' All she was actually saying is that the word ''constitution'' does not appear in a particular topic heading. In fact the standards include a major section on the Continental Congress, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, a feature the American Legal and Constitutional Society has lauded. Mrs. Cheney complained that George Washington ''makes only a fleeting appearance.'' In reality the guidelines encourage children at all grade levels to study his life through stories, biographies, documents, national symbols, and library research. The gap is indeed immense between the Cheney version of the standards and the actual documents. Yet pundits and talk show hosts quickly picked up her allegations and for many months repeated them. This summer, Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich joined in. On Labor Day Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas attacked the standards in a speech to the American Legion, denouncing them as threatening Americans ''as surely as any foreign power ever has.'' None of these political figures made a thoughtful critique of the guidelines. They merely repeated the phrases Mrs. Cheney had uttered months before. In other words, the political controversy over the standards has degenerated into a ritualized recitation of charges suitable for preelection speeches to sympathetic audiences. There is, however, a second story to tell about the events of the past year. This is the story of the thousands of history teachers, school officials, and parents who have been studying the standards, discussing them responsibly, and quietly putting them to work in social studies classrooms. Across the nation, teachers, on the lookout for good resource material, are squeezing the standards for all they are worth, trying out the hundreds of rich teaching activities they offer, drawing on them for new curricular designs, and largely ignoring the political invective. Educators have also been engaging in a stimulating national discussion about the aims and methods of history as a school subject. UCLA's National Center for History in the Schools, which brought together dozens of teachers to write the guidelines, has enjoyed, since last fall, a continuous, invigorating exchange with teachers about concrete ways to implement and expand upon the standards' specific recommendations for better history teaching. Subscribers to humanities-oriented electronic-mail lists have been debating the standards all year and have been sharing their treasuries of good classroom practice. In his speech, Senator Dole announced ominously that 20,000 copies of the standards have been ''distributed,'' as if to suggest a furtive campaign to slip the documents under teachers' doors in plain brown wrappers. In fact, more than 30,000 copies of the standards have gone out, and the reason is that teachers, parents, and school districts have ordered and paid for them as potentially valuable instructional tools. The teacher-authors of the books and the numerous professional and public-interest organizations that approved them have always understood that publication of the first editions would be just the beginning of a national effort to transform history into the exciting, immensely important school subject it should be. This summer the Council for Basic Education, an organization admired for advancing the core disciplines, agreed to sponsor an independent assessment of the standards by highly respected teachers, scholars, and civic leaders. This review, to be completed later this fall, is welcomed as an opportunity for sober reflection on history education. Some critics have demanded that the history standards be scrapped. But in the absence of a federal ''ministry of education'' to dictate curriculum - the last thing most Americans would want - who is going to do the scrapping? The history standards are unofficial, purely voluntary, and the product of a broad consensus. Educators know this, and they, together with the parents, will be the final arbiters of the value of these publications. While some politicians continue to lampoon the standards, teachers are busy mining the books for new classroom strategies, looking forward to the day when history is no longer one of the subjects American children like least.