Features

Whose standards?

National | Rejected revisionist history standards are finding their way through the back door of American education

Issue: "Forbes," Nov. 20, 1999

Nancy Moore's fresh-faced, 4-year-old preschoolers are buzzing with excitement: They will perform their moon-landing mini-play for the 3-year-olds in the class next door. Ms. Moore, an educator at Horizon Preschool in San Diego, leads her wriggling performers onto a red-and-blue carpet, assembles them in a loose semi-circle and the play begins: Tiny hands propel cardboard Saturn Five rockets and aluminum-foil lunar modules through the air. Then, to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," eight high, sweet voices sing about an American hero: "Neil Armstrong was an astronaut ... First man on the moon, that meant a lot." By the time those preschoolers reach high school, their textbooks may offer a different historical spin: that the American space program of the 1960s was a sexist clique. Many of the spin-doctors in question-high-school textbook authors-have long viewed American history through the politically correct lenses of feminism, multiculturalism, and environmentalism. But after more than a quarter-century of layering -ism upon -ism, some authors may be producing a new -ism: anti-Americanism. In a one-two punch, say conservative historians, such authors process American history through today's PC orthodoxy, then write it up as a kind of retroactive atonement for a national past that doesn't measure up to that code. The combination, says John Fonte, can wind up shredding students' national pride. "These historians emphasize the negative aspects of American culture, and gloss over or romanticize other cultures," says Mr. Fonte, director of the conservative Hudson Institute's Center for American Common Culture. "The more they can show the negative aspects of this country, the more they can deconstruct any sense of nationalism or patriotism." For example, the textbook United States History and the Course of Human Events (West Publishing, 1997) rightly assails American slavery, but validates slavery in Africa as socially tolerable. It also criticizes the colonists for their attempt to "Christianize" the Indians, but calls the Indians' torture of white men "a means by which bereaved families compensated for the loss of loved ones." In its analysis of the U.S. space program, the same book strains to portray the selection of Mercury astronauts as sexist. While admitting that female astronaut candidate Gerry Cobb had not accumulated any actual flight hours, the authors paint her rejection as an injustice since she was able to pass all required mental and physical tests. The didactic bottom line? That, despite its best efforts, America as a nation is a sociocultural screw-up. "Kids are being taught that [Americans] are moral and ethical inferiors," says Marianne Jennings, a textbook author and professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University in Tempe. She has four children, ages 4 through 16, and reports that "My children come home feeling almost guilty for being Americans." According to Ms. Jennings, who has written textbook critiques for the Arizona Republic and The Wall Street Journal, United States History and the Course of Human Events was one of the first new textbooks to hit the market after the tendentious National History Standards were revised in 1996. The standards, published by UCLA's National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS), were first released in 1994. But critics, including Lynne Cheney, then chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the Bush administration, assailed the standards as a warped, revisionist assault on historical fact. Critics claimed the NCHS criteria not only peddled a skewed, left-wing ideology, but were also educationally anemic. For example, they dealt scantily with the major campaigns of World War II, but dwelled on the stateside wartime roles of women. Also, they omitted such historical figures as Henry Cabot Lodge and the Wright brothers, but prompted students to discuss how pop icon Madonna symbolized modern culture. A national backlash from academicians and legislators (including a 99-1 vote by the U.S. Senate to condemn the standards) prompted NCHS director Gary Nash to order a revision of their revision. Released in 1996 amid a chorus of liberal fanfare, the new standards, at first glance, did cede ground to traditional historians. But the "revision" turned out to be the academic equivalent of hiding the dirty pictures until mommy and daddy left the room. After removing much of the content critics found offensive, NCHS re-released the same material in a two-volume guide for teachers called Bring History Alive. According to Mr. Nash, about 30,000 copies of Bring History Alive have been sold to date-along with a combined 60,000 copies of both the revised and original history standards. Despite the academic uproar, the original standards are still being distributed and are posted on the NCHS website-so prominently that they eclipse the newer, revised standards, which are listed last. Mr. Nash estimates that, through sharing copies of NCHS materials, "several hundred thousand teachers know about and have consulted the standards." Nearly every mass-market American history textbook released since 1997 bears the mark of those standards, says Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, a nonpartisan research organization based in New York. But, while those books may contain anti-American passages and an overall dour view of the nation's role in social history, Mr. Sewall points out that the books must hit at least enough patriotic high notes for publishers to sell them to school boards. "Often the negativism [in these books] is subtle, and takes the form of people having had to struggle against the 'haves,' the status quo, and the white patriarchy," Mr. Sewall says: "People with struggles are thrown into high relief as individuals, but the society or polity as a whole is seen as repressive or narrow." Such somber, pride-starved historiography portrays America as an unfinished nation, a hotbed of minority struggle for equality and civil rights, says Mr. Sewall. He calls it "the American past and present in the minor key." Mr. Fonte says emphasis on cultural division within the United States, coupled with highlighting the achievements of non-European cultures, serves to downplay the importance of the nation-state in the minds of students, marching them toward the "global village." One specific tactic: the use of the phrase "the American peoples"-plural. "Students are being taught that their country is not made up of one 'people,' but many different 'peoples,'" says Mr. Fonte, adding that the plural was shoehorned into the academic lexicon via the NCHS standards. "Students looking at this concept think automatically in terms of division instead of unity. They are taught there's no such thing as 'the American people' [singular] ... nothing could be more deconstructing of America than that concept." NCHS materials make their way into classrooms through curricular free-agency. In many districts, teachers are free to supplement prescribed curricula with material of their own choosing as long as they can demonstrate that their add-ons meet state or local standards. And although no district's standards include inculcating feelings of cynicism and guilt in students, some NCHS materials seem to promote both. For example, one NCHS teaching example asks students to "draw on books such as Eleanor Coerr's Sadako to discuss the costs of dropping nuclear bombs on Japan. Read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Make origami cranes and write on them a personal message for world peace. Display in the classroom." According to John Fonte, both works cited above are discussions of the U.S. attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that fail to examine the bombings in the context of the larger war. "There is no reference to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It's just 'Look how horrible the Americans were for dropping nuclear weapons on Japan,'" says Mr. Fonte. "The purpose of this assignment is to evoke feelings of guilt. What [the National History Standards] don't do is switch it and say, 'You're a sailor on the USS California and you're bombed by the Japanese sneak attack at Pearl Harbor. How do you feel about it?' So it's only one side." Other historians use coverage of military campaigns as an excuse to frame American forces as global bullies. For example, the textbook World History: Connections to Today (Prentice Hall, 1999) paints this picture of the Mexican War: "In the fighting that followed, the United States invaded Mexico. In Mexico City, young [Mexican] military cadets fought to the death rather than surrender.... Despite the bravery of these 'boy heroes,' Mexico lost the Mexican War." The account never mentions the brave center-charge of American soldiers led by Captain Charles May; or that American forces were often outnumbered as much as 3 to 1; or that the technical acumen of American artillery forces helped the United States overcome the greatest odds its army had ever faced. Lynne Cheney, now a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, says many contemporary historians have an explanation for their myopic renditions of the American past. "I have found that historians who present an unduly bleak view of the U.S. believe they are providing a balance to the happy story the larger culture tells," says Mrs. Cheney. "But the truth is, the larger culture isn't telling kids much about the past anymore, so kids are left with the dark and dreary version of our past that academic historians tend to dwell upon." Marianne Jennings predicts that such gloomy historical rewrites will continue to creep into American classrooms. And when concerned parents question schools, she says, many will stop their exploration when they're told by administrators that the textbooks "meet the new standards." "Most parents won't go farther and inquire 'Whose standards? What standards?'" says Mrs. Jennings. "By the time anybody figures out what's gone wrong, you'll have educated three or four years worth of students with those books. By then, the damage is done."

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