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The New History Standards

Subject: First Fruits of Those History Standards by Walter A. McDougall

Foreign Policy Research Institute
A Catalyst for Ideas

The Newsletter of FPRI's
Marvin Wachman Fund for International Education


By Walter A. McDougall

Volume 4, Number 3
April 1997

Walter McDougall is Editor of Orbis, co-director of FPRI's History Academy, and the Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. His book The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age won a Pulitzer Prize, His latest book, Promised Land, Crusader State: America's Encounter with the World Since 1776, is available from Houghton Mifflin.


By Walter A. McDougall

Having reviewed both the original and revised National Standards for History in Commentary and served as co-director of FPRI's History Academy for secondary-school teachers, I have been more than a little vexed and perplexed by the battle waged over school curricula. Should our nation promote national standards at all in so politically charged and imprecise a discipline as history? If so, who should draft them and who approve them? Do the National Standards funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and generated at the University of California Los Angeles under Gary Nash and Charlotte Crabtree tilt too much in the direction of multiculturalism, feminism, and knee-jerk anti- Americanism? Or, once shorn of some tendentious passages, do they represent a necessary updating of high-school curricula informed by the latest historiographical trends? After what seemed a fifteen-round bout over such questions, I came to share the battle weariness expressed by Diane Ravitch and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Enough abstract debate, I remember saying, Just give me a textbook to review.
Well, now I have one-the first, by all appearances, to be patterned on the Nash/Crabtree National Standards. As such, United States History: In the Course of Human Events, to be released in 1997 by the West Publishing Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, represents a high-roller's gamble to the effect that those controversial standards will indeed steer the purchasing decisions of state and local school boards nationwide. For this 1,200-page tome glittering with color illustrations on virtually every page, and boasting of 123 inset features, 97 maps, and 91 tables and graphs, must have been unusually costly to produce. So glitzy is its layout, in fact, that the reader must make an act of will to block out the ubiquitous pictures and boxes in order to follow the narrative. Perhaps the publishers are counting on that, because the text that is obscured by all those visual aids not only reflects the slant of the National Standards, it does not even realize the balance the standards achieved between white male political and economic history on the one hand, and the social histories of minorities and women on the other.
I was disappointed to discover that imbalance, because the front material of United States History gives reason for hope. (Perhaps, again, the publishers hope the preface is all your school board members will read.) The Statue of Liberty graces the cover, and the introductory Greeting boldly affirms the old-fashioned idea that history differs from other subjects in that it tells a story. What is more, the story's main themes include democracy and citizenship, geography and the environment, multicultural society, everyday life, arts and humanities, economics, technological developments, and global interactions-a laudable list. But the preface also boasts that this textbook (in line with the standards) is as inclusive as possible with regardto multicultural and multiracial history, that it expressly privileges social history and is especially concerned with the forces and events that affected the everyday lives of ordinary people [since] the best way for us to put our lives into historical perspective is to know what happened in the past to people like us (p. xxiv). In sum, this is history from the bottom up, informed by a bias toward groups rather than individuals or the nation as a whole, and by a perspective on what happened to people.People to whom things happen are implicitly victims.
The chronological breakdown of United States History is almost identical to that of the Nash/Crabtree standards. The latter divided American history into ten eras, while this text has eleven main units. But this text rushes through the settlement and growth of the American colonies, the war for independence, the Constitutional Convention, and the early national period injust two units, while the National Standards at least budgeted three. The textbook cashes in on these savings by devoting almost four units to post-World War II history where the National Standards were content with two. Why the scanting of early Americanhistory in favor of the contemporary era? In order, it seems, to make room for full treatment of the liberation movements of African-, Hispanic-, Native-, Asian-, and female Americans, and to discuss at length theissues presumed to be of interest to young people today, such as immigration, homelessness, drugs, AIDS, and the Internet (indeed, the last word in the text is given to Bill Gates). Such detailed coverage of recent and current events is not in itself bad. But inasmuch as this course may be the only chance many students have to grasp the origins and essence of their nation's history, the short shrift given earlier periods is disturbing.
Disturbance turns into alarm when the attentive parent discovers that the discussion of those earlier periods is rent with lacunae. The first unit begins with the three cultures premise of the National Standards to the effect that the United States is a hybrid of Amerindian, African, and European cultures. But where the pre-Columbian and African civilizations are described in sympathetic detail, that of Renaissance Europeans is dismissed in a few pages devoted only to their skill in shipbuilding and lust for spices and gold. Thus, we learn that Native Americans had complex cultures and trade routes and practiced equality for women and matrilineage. Aztecs appear only as victims of Spain, and the only reference to the vivisectionist religion of pre-Columbian peoples is this: Like other cultures of the time, the Olmecs may have practiced human sacrifice (p. 16). In other words, they may not have-and even if they did, they were no different in that from other (unnamed) cultures. Likewise, fifteenth-century Africans displayed diverse cultures, great luxury, and a university in Timbuktu that attracted students from all over North Africa (p. 25). No mention is made of the fact that Europeans had by 1492 founded sixty institutions that merit the name university. But then no mention is made of any of the values, institutions, or achievements of Western civilization save its technology. The Renaissance receives seven lines of text, the Reformation none, and the Enlightenment-that taproot of American political philosophy-six short sentences. Judging by the information provided here, the European settlers of the Americas might as well have come from Mars.
One need not excuse, much less glorify, Spanish imperialism or English colonization to grant that Europeans, too, were real people with a rather complex civilization. But motives or belief-systems other than plunder find little place in this book. The names Luther and Calvin, Erasmus and Loyola, Bacon and Newton do not appear in the index. Nor do Episcopalians, Methodists, Congregationalists, or Presbyterians-and Baptists appear only as opponents of women's ordination. Missionaries are invariably predatory and intolerant, and the authors seem clueless in matters of theology. We read, for instance, that thanks to the first Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, people began to realize that they could make choices about how to practice religion (p. 93). As if Europeans had not been fighting for two centuries for precisely that choice.
The secular origins of the United States are, if anything, even more rudely treated. The account of the origins of the American Revolution dwells on the issue of taxation but says almost nothing about representation. Suffice to say that the Magna Carta, the English revolutions, and John Locke's Whig philosophy that inspired Thomas Jefferson are not to be found in a book otherwise subtitled In the Course of Human Events. George Washington merits a box as one of fifteen People Who Made a Difference. But whereas the three African-Americans, one Hispanic, one Asian, and four women who made that list are praised as heroic, Washington alone is described as a cold man of ordinary talents who was a symbol more than a real hero. He was idolized, the book suggests, simply as a form of self-congratulation-hence, the idea of George Washington, not always the man himself, was what counted (p. 135). Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Mother Jones, Cesar Chavez, and other leaders of women's and minorities' movements get not only unqualified praise but more space than Washington.
The Constitution is discussed at length, and its text printed in full. But the Federalist Papers, perhaps the greatest body of political philosophy Western civilization has produced, inspire only two short quotations and are deemed important only for their role in promoting ratification of the Constitution. Foreign policy is granted almost no importance whatever. Washington's Farewell Address merits one short paragraph and the successes of John Quincy Adams (including the Monroe Doctrine) less than a page. More space is given diplomacy in the twentieth century, but once again without any context by which a student might make sense of it. Fascism, for instance, just happens when in 1933, Germany had elected [sic] a new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi Party had capitalized on the discontent and suffering caused by the harsh peace settlement imposed by the Treaty of Versailles (p. 721). (Hitler was appointed, not elected, and no mention is made of the effects of the Great Depression or the suicide of the Weimar Republic.) Japan, too, appears suddenly in 1937 as an expansionist power. Fascism's ideology and totalitarianism do not exist for these authors. Nor, for that matter, do Stalin's. The world of the 1930s is just described as unstable, and U.S. entry into World War II is brushed over in three pages of text. The spare chapter on the war itself is concerned as much with labor and ethnic strife, and women and African-Americans in the work force, as with the millions of (overwhelmingly white male) Americans who risked their lives to defeat fascism. As much space is devoted to internment of the nisei as to D-Day and all the campaigns in the Pacific through 1944.
References to feminism appear on cue in almost every chapter, as they did in the National Standards. Women are rarely presented as wives and mothers who worked alongside their fathers and husbands and sons and generally shared their values and opinions, but as a beleaguered minority in the same category as slaves and Indians. When disparities of income between men and women are discussed, for instance, the evidence is presented at face value, with no effort to explain why such disparities may exist for reasons other than sexism. A gratuitous leading question is even appended that is sure to please the teachers' unions: What is especially significant about this difference [in pay] in a field such as teaching? (p. 939). Other graphs, such as one purporting to show a shocking reversal in social and military spending under Reagan, distort reality to force a tendentious conclusion. According to this text, Reagan won elections because he was a professional actor in league with big business and the New Right (a constant, looming presence in the last chapters). His economic policies and slashing cuts in welfare had profound negative effects on the economy and government services (p. 1032). His military buildup and covert operations were dangerous and illegal, and they led to worsened relations with the USSR. Gorbachev alone ended the cold war. Worse yet, Reagan's legacies would continue to shape the nation in years to come (p. 1032).
The debate over the National Standards, I had come to conclude, degenerated into shadowboxing. The telling blows would land when textbooks based on the standards began to appear. Judging by this one, the critics were right. A book that presumes to explain U.S. history by ignoring Lockean individualism, disparaging Washington, and defending, by way of conclusion, pornography on the Internet (The culture wars have a new front in cyberspace [p. 1101]) is a fraud. But let its final paragraph speak for itself: The application of the ideas of liberty, equality, and justice on which this democracy is founded are [sic] constantly evolving in response to changing times (p. 1101). A truism masquerading as wisdom graced by a subject/verb disagreement is just the product you would expect to be peddled to American schools today.
A version of this review appears in The Textbook Letter, a bimonthly review of high school textbooks edited by The Textbook League, P.O. Box 51, Sausalito, California 94966.
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