The fallacy of feel-good history

DIANE RAVITCH is a historian of education at New York University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn."

TWENTY YEARS AGO, I was invited by then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig to join a committee to revise California’s history curriculum. Over 18 months, we produced a document that added more time for the study of American and world history and called for the teaching of the dramatic controversies that make historical study engaging and honest.

Immediately, however, a wide variety of religious, racial and ethnic groups demanded changes in the document to recognize and honor their history. Blacks, Jews, Native Americans, conservative Christians, Arabs, atheists, Armenians, Poles and others lined up to complain at public hearings about references to their groups.

What made their complaints powerful is that California, unlike any other state, has mandated by law since 1976 that instructional materials used in the schools must provide positive portrayals of specified groups.


When it comes to males and females, for instance, the Legislature decreed that “equal portrayal must be applied in every instance.” That means, among other things, that an equal number of male and female characters must be depicted in “roles in which they are mentally and physically active, being creative, solving problems ... “ and that male and female characters in textbooks must show a “range of emotions (e.g. fear, anger, tenderness.)”

California’s textbooks and other materials must instill a “sense of pride” in students’ heritages and may not include “adverse reflection” on any group. Cultural or lifestyle differences may not be portrayed as “undesirable.” Members of minority groups must be shown “in the same range of socioeconomic settings” as those in the majority.

And it’s not just gender and ethnicity that is “protected.” Older people, people with disabilities and people who pursue various occupations have been written into the law.

So it’s not surprising that in recent months gays and lesbians have stepped forward to demand a place at the state’s capacious table. They too want their roles to be portrayed positively in textbooks purchased by the state. And frankly, they’ve got a point. In view of the state’s broad inclusion of every other group in its list of those deserving such treatment, the state has no principled reason to exclude any new claimant.

Just a few months ago, Hindu organizations appeared before the state Board of Education complaining that they were offended by references to their religion in the history textbooks -- including descriptions of the caste system and depictions of the treatment of women (one group wanted a reference to the fact that women had “fewer” rights in ancient India changed to say that women had “different” rights). Even though scholars insisted that the historical references were accurate, the organizations objected that their religion had been subjected to an “adverse reflection.”

Because of its social-content guidelines, California will never see an end to these rancorous debates about who wins recognition in the textbooks. And each time, whatever California decides will have a huge effect. Because California contains nearly 12% of U.S. school enrollment, every major textbook publisher tailors its products to meet the state’s specifications and then sells that product in other states.

It is time to recognize that the problem is not the nature of the group demanding inclusion, but the fact that the state has arrogated the power to dictate how textbooks should be written.

The state’s social-content guidelines should be abolished. They put the state Board of Education into the absurd position of deciding which facts are historically accurate and which should be included or excluded, a responsibility for which it is manifestly unqualified. The guidelines are an open invitation to interest groups to politicize textbooks.

Telling publishers that their books must instill pride only guarantees a phony version of feel-good history. Publishers, as a result, bend over backward to be positive, whether writing about the genocidal reign of Mao Tse-tung (presumably to avoid offending his admirers) or the unequal treatment of women in Islamic societies (to avoid offending Muslims).

Certainly, textbooks should accurately portray society in all its complexity. But to impose contemporary political requirements on how the events are portrayed only ensures that the history we teach our students is inaccurate and dishonest. History books have already grown larger and duller to accommodate every group’s demands.

What the state should expect of publishers is that they produce books that are as honest and accurate as possible. Such narratives would be far likelier to instill humility, a recognition of human folly, an understanding of conflict and differences and a sense of our common humanity rather than a sense of pride.