Standards for Teaching History Unveiled--Again


They were condemned by the U.S. Senate and lambasted by presidential hopefuls, and gave radio talk-show bombardier Rush Limbaugh a field day. (The acerbic broadcast host said they should be flushed down the toilet.)

Now, the national history standards, which are to guide the teaching of American and world history in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools, are back from the drawing board. And, judging from the final version to be released today, the critics for the most part were heeded.

Attacked for, among other reasons, giving short shrift to American icons like George Washington and obsessing about Joseph McCarthy and other dark episodes in America’s past, the standards appear to have embraced most of the recommendations made recently by two independent panels of historians.

Gone are the thousands of “teaching examples” that were the targets of so many of the attacks. Gone as well is loaded language in the standards themselves--approximately 70 broad statements of what all American children are expected to learn about history--that had stirred accusations of liberal bias.


The new version has beefed-up discussions of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Cold War and the westward expansion. New sections have been added on the role of science and technology in American progress. And other sore spots have been eased by better editing.

References to McCarthy, for instance, whose role in the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s had occupied two separate standards, have been reduced. Now, one former critic of the standards noted, he “rises and falls in one standard, not two.”

“Most of the grounds for criticism in the original standards are gone,” said Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration and a member of one of the review panels convened last year by the nonpartisan Council for Basic Education.

“My overall view of this is that any fair-minded reader is going say the second draft is nonpartisan, fair, asks important questions and doesn’t prejudge the answers. I think they are dramatically improved.”


Not all of the critics are satisfied, however.

Lynne Cheney, the former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities who led the charge against the standards, said the revised version still editorializes on American history.

“It’s better,” she said, “but I don’t think of it as a model for what we should be teaching in our schools.”

The standards, four years in the making, have been front and center in the culture wars, accused of pandering to liberal viewpoints and committing sins of omission--including, by one accounting, six mentions of Harriet Tubman but none of Paul Revere.


Last week they were assailed in the conservative magazine National Review for referring to “American peoples” instead of just the American people--a swipe at the standards’ attempt to present a broader view of history as including the contributions of minorities.

Even President Clinton, in a speech last Wednesday to the nation’s governors, called the national history standards a failure.

Joyce Appleby, president-elect of the American Historical Assn. and professor of history at UCLA, said the furor has been not so much about conflicting versions of history as about new ideas on how history should be taught.

“This [debate] is about the politics of nostalgia,” she said. “It’s not a case of people who felt history was changed so much as people feeling the way they had been taught history was changed.


“Most people are not aware of the enormous amount of scholarship done in American history and world history over the last 30 years. The richness of this scholarship has been slow getting into the classroom and textbooks. The standards do a marvelous job of bringing this new scholarship in. It’s brought in women, ordinary people, laborers, immigrants.”

The history standards were part of a national effort set in motion by President Bush seven years ago to raise the academic achievement of American school children. National education organizations were enlisted to draft standards for a dozen core subjects, including math, science, English and civics. None has attracted as much controversy as the American history standards.

One of the main concerns had been the standards’ failure to present a complete picture of American history, slighting in particular “such presences as [George] Washington and [Thomas] Jefferson and seminal documents such as the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.”

Now those documents are explicitly mentioned in one of the 70 standards. The standard previously had addressed the “institutions and practices of government created during the Revolution and how they were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundation of the American political system.” The words “based on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights” were added to the end of the statement.


“Now it’s doubly clear,” said Gary Nash, co-director with Charlotte Crabtree of the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA, which coordinated the standards project.

The review panels also had found instances of loaded or inconsistent language that could “direct students to biased conclusions.” They were troubled by differences in language used to describe the Kennedy and Johnson eras and the Coolidge and Hoover years, for example, finding the first two portrayed with such positive terms as “accomplishments” and “legacy” and the latter two in more negative terms, such as “trickle down” to describe the economic policies of the Coolidge years.

In the new version, more neutral terms have replaced the biased language. The “domestic accomplishments” of Kennedy’s New Frontier program have become simply the “domestic policies” of the New Frontier.

Cheney, who helped fund the development of the history standards when she was a member of the Bush administration, still takes issue with the standards, however. Her main objection, she said in an interview Tuesday, is that they still contain passages that slant the discussion of important events.


One sore spot, in Cheney’s view, comes in the American history standards, in a statement that the Great Depression ranks with the American Revolution as “one of the great shaping experiences of American history.”

“That is a highly debatable point. I certainly disagree with it,” said Cheney, who started the debate over national standards two years ago. “I’m not suggesting that my view is the one that every schoolkid should learn. But the other side of the story is not even presented here.”