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The Education Liberator, Vol. 1, No. 2, October 1995

Another disaster in education "reform"

National History Standards condemned and rejected (but for the wrong reasons)


The semi-histrionics over the National History Standards are beginning to quiet down, but this episode surely must go down in the history books as one of the more stunning of the public schooling system's spasmodic, fated attempts at self-reform. Whenever before has the U. S. Senate voted 99 to 1 to condemn an education reform scheme? This was one colossal wreck. How can we possibly resist rubber-necking to see what happened?

What happened was that a blue-ribbonish team of educators proposed a history curriculum they thought the whole nation would embrace. Political leaders and journalists shot down the history framework so abruptly and totally that ordinary parents of schoolchildren will never get a chance to reject it. This is one chunk of the America 2000 plan that won't live to see 2000. May it rest in peace.

But, what is not happening is worrisome. America is not reporting a lesson learned from this experience. In all the many journals that have panned the Standards, not one takes the reader to a new and better understanding. There is nothing to show that we won't repeat the same futile scenario, or that in other academic disciplines, work-in-progress to create national standards has been halted.

One observer, John Fonte of the American Enterprise Institute, suggests in The Chronicle of Higher Education that we must now launch attempts to define history standards on state and local levels, as if the difficulties with the National Standards were simply one of degree, and not of kind. Most critics, however, when they've finished bashing the Standards, mill about with no clue as to where we need to go next.

History is how people learn, if we have wit, courage, and open minds for the lessons it can tell us. The Standards themselves announce "History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought." Now that the History Standards are, so to speak, history, we can regard them as a laboratory where some thoughts have been put to test. But what poor history students we are proving to be: conclusions are few in coming. There are lessons here, make no mistake. That hardly a soul has gathered them in speaks to how far, far away we are from readiness to receive them.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves in the story. The idea of "world class standards" in five subject areas made their way into George Bush's "America 2000" in 1991. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U. S. Department of Education, work on history standards began, enlisting hundreds of educators. Four years and $2.2 million later, they delivered the National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience: Grades 5-12, including 2,600 sample lessons.

The Standards are a disaster. Most complaints follow along one theme: the standards portray American history as a wrenching succession of victimizations. You have to look hard to find the glory and the promise, if you can find it at all. "Whose History? Whose Standards?" asks Walter A. MacDougal in Commentary, (May 1995):

Under the Standards, the lessons a child receives are: If Europeans braved the unknown to discover a new world it was to kill and oppress. If colonists carved a new nation out of the woods, it was to displace Native Americans and impose private property.... Nowhere is it suggested that when aggrieved minorities have demanded justice, they have appealed to the very principles bequeathed by our nation's architects...[and] have striven not to overthrow what white men had built, but to share more abundantly in it.

Journalists, not unlike the U. S. Senate, have found near unanimity of outrage at the excessive negativity and bias found in the Standards. The Textbook Letter points out that the Standards minimize the powerful role of science and technology in shaping our history. John Leo writing in U. S. News and World Report summarizes the Standards agenda: "Take the West down a peg, romanticize "the Other" (nonwhites), treat all cultures as equal, refrain from criticizing non-white cultures." Other writers zero in on single elements of the standards; for example, Fonte chafes against the bias inherent in this passage, "Students should be able to demonstrate understanding of the contributions of the Warren Court in advancing civil liberties and equal rights." Even teacher's union head Albert Shanker came down on the Standards, saying, "No other nation in the world teaches a national history that leaves its children feeling negative about their own country-this would be the first."

We are a diverse and politicized nation with a complex history. How could a nation already constipated by political correctness ever come to agreement on "national standards" for something so highly charged as our history?

The attempt was doomed from the start. The project's contributors early in their work phrased a preface for the Standards which might as well serve as its epitaph. The 1993 "Progress Report" states, "knowledge of history is the precondition of political intelligence." This they gave as the foremost justification for the study of history. How completely and honestly true!

If knowledge of history is the precondition of political intelligence, then the teaching of history is the manipulation of political intelligence. To establish National History Standards is to control the nation's political intelligence. By definition, the Standards themselves would be an instrument of political persuasion.

Even with super-human attention to objectivity and balance, no textbook, test, or reader is fully free of bias. But in the case of the History Standards, the goal of objectivity was never given a moment's thought. This was to be an account of our "common memory," an expression of our "core values" designed to promote "informed, discriminating citizenship." The Standards were a golden opportunity for educators to shape the values and political character of generations of Americans.

This once, however, America won't let educators have their way. Politician and journalists were quick to call these standards unacceptable, but one senses that they'd gladly substitute their version for the educators'. But this, of course, would be wrong, too. The child, the citizen-to-be, comes to political maturity when he can derive his own history standards, deciding for himself what is important and why. To reach this pass, there's a lot of history to sift through and learn, and a greater share to be left by the wayside. The whole of recorded history is too huge to comprehend, and someone simply must winnow it down to a manageable field of study for the child. Who shall make those value-laden choices?

Charles MacDougal asks that question, too:

The battle of Standards is part of a larger war: Donald Kagan's fight for Western Civ at Yale; the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian; the politicization of the American Historical Association which voted in 1982 to condemn the Reagan defense build-up on the learned conclusion that it would provoke nuclear war. In light of this melee, the notion that nationally-mandated Standards are wise is mad. I agree with Hanna Gray, president-emeritus of the University of Chicago, when she writes that "certification" of a version of history is "contrary to every principle that should animate the free discussion of 'knowledge.' " But she ducks one point, Children will be exposed to one textbook, one teacher. They will have standards imposed on them. So the question remains: who chooses? I have no instrumental solution.

MacDougal really can't imagine whose responsibility it is to choose for the children. He really can't see any way to extricate the children from the larger political and cultural wars our pluralistic society is heir to. His mystification is total and, sadly, typical of all the critics.

There is an instrumental solution. The National History Standards mess demonstrates a fundamental truth: education and the transmission of values are interwoven--and the only people who have the right to chose what values go into a kid's head are his parents. There can never be a national public consensus about history or literature or science, or so many other facets of education where values are in play.

Public schools usurp parent's rightful and necessary role. Public schools set our society in a perpetual competition for the hearts and minds of our children; it's a harmful, exhausting struggle, and an unnecessary one. If schools did not belong to the state, if education were a matter of private concern, then parents could work with teachers if values came into conflict.

If problems proved unresolvable, parents could freely withdraw their children to seek a different school, or perhaps to homeschool them. That is the history lesson, the political intelligence, to be found in the National History Standards.

Jackie Orsi is a freelance writer in Moss Beach, California. She also serves as a Trustee for the California Homeschool Network.

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