Not so much gore, more Old Glory

18th November 1994 at 00:00
Lucy Hodges on the controversy surrounding national standards for history. America is in the grip of a debate over what to teach in history, with right-wing critics arguing that politically incorrect white males are being pushed aside in favour of the study of women and ethnic minorities.

The row has surfaced over new national standards for teaching history - the first ever in the US - which have been drawn up over the past two-and-a-half years at the University of California at Los Angeles. Voluntary national standards are being developed in a core of subjects as part of President Clinton's reforms of American schooling.

Lynne Cheney, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said the new standards presented a very warped view of American history. "They make it sound as if everything in America is wrong and grim," she said.

For example, she counted 17 references to the Ku-Klux-Klan in the 271-page standards document, and 19 references to McCarthyism, but found no mention of Paul Revere or Thomas Edison.

She was also irritated by the portrait of Ronald Reagan. For example the standards say: "Democratic Speaker Thomas 'Tip' O'Neill characterised Reagan as 'Herbert Hoover with a smile', and 'a cheerleader for selfishness' Is this a fair characterisation? Why or why not?" The creators of National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience argue that the critics have misunderstood what they are doing. Gary Nash, a UCLA professor and co-director of the project, says the standards are not a textbook, but a curriculum guide for schools.

They cover 10 historical eras, beginning with Three Worlds Meet (up to 1620) and ending with Contemporary United States (1968 to the present).

The standards are not required, though it is likely they will be widely adopted as a result of federal government backing and trade union support.

The Clinton administration has played no part at all in their development. In fact the history standards project was authorised by Mrs Cheney when George Bush was president. She is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

The debate over what should be taught in history is being seen as part of the continuing struggle over the humanities curriculum in American education. Conservatives are anxious about the disappearance of traditional authors in the interests of diversity and political correctness.

But Professor Nash is surprised by the controversy. He says the aim of the reforms was to develop a curriculum that was issue-driven, which is why the standards concentrated on broad themes rather than individuals.

The examples were intended to show creative ways to teach, not to highlight important people like Edison, he explained.

He said: "I think we want to bury rote learning and the emphasis on dates, facts, places, events and one damn thing after another," he said. "In its place we want classrooms that are jumping withmock trials and staged debates and delving into primary source materials."

The new standards also ask teachers to pay more attention to the history of American Indians, blacks, women and others who have traditionally been neglected in textbooks.

Mrs Cheney believes it is important to study women and ethnic minorities, but she does not want that to push out "politically incorrect white males" such as George Washington and Robert E Lee.

Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio and television talk show host, has been even more scathing about the new standards. He has been quoted as saying that the standards were the work of a secret group and should be "flushed down the toilet".

Exploring the American Experience, National Center for History in the Schools, UCLA, 10880 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 761, Los Angeles, California 90024-4108, Price $18.95 for educators and $24.95 for institutions, plus $5 postage and packing. Cheques payable to Regents, University of California.

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