The value implications of the world history standards debate

A collection of items that suggest the real issue is ideology, not academic standards, November 1994

The New York Times, 19 November 1994, op-ed page, final paragraph

Historical Blindness

By John Patrick Diggins (professor of history at CUNY Graduate Center)

Students are asked to exercise “independent judgment,” yet it has already been decided that they should not spend an excessive amount of time studying “great civilizations.” They are told to “detect bias,” yet any detection—for example, questioning a text for emphasizing the achievements of one culture over another—runs the risk of being dubbed racist. They are to “weigh evidence and to evaluate arguments,” yet they dare not pronounce the Federalist Papers superior in political wisdom lest they commit the elitist mistakes of the past. They are advised to “sniff out spurious appeals to history,” yet they should beware of studying the “great men,” the very thinkers who were in the vanguard of inquiry. Some standards.

Date: Tue, 22 Nov 1994 10:49:24 PCT
Sender: H-NET List for World History (
Gordon C. Thomasson World History Faculty
Subject: History Standards

Since this aspect of Garton-Zavesky's argument lies, like an undigested potato or a blot of mustard, I’ll respond.

“For the last 2000 years, the Christian faith—and more specifically the Catholic Church—has been a common factor in European history.”

It is this kind of either uninformed or else studiously ignorant generalization that undergirds the entire Kristol/Buckley American Enterprize Institute/D'Souza/Cheney et al. assault on everything they label PC in the name of their own neo-McCarthyite Political Correctness. Cheney continues the task she began as Reagan's minion. Americans are generally so historically ignorant that one can wrap herself in the flag and spout any sort of nonsense and half the population will salute.

The last time I did any historical study of early Christianity, what is now called the Catholic Church was simply one of many theological interpretations and applications of religious ideas and experiences having ANYTHING BUT European origins. Perhaps after Constantine we can say that Christianity was a common factor in Roman (Empire) history, but for EUROPE Christianity was as far as 700+ years away, depending on which area we discuss. Christianity does not have a 2,000 year pedigree in Europe, and Catholicism does not have a 2,000 year lock on Christianity. Quite a few of the so-called (by Irenaeus and others) Gnostics (if we can judge by their texts and not their opponents' polemics) were closer to Judean Christianity than their Greco-Roman successors' syncretisms of Mystery Religion and state cult could ever claim to be. G-Z's assertion is special pleading, for whatever motive, just as is Cheney's Reagan-Right Wing attack on the history standards.

Let's just consider one of countless sources on the Catholicism question:

“As a universalistic religion, Christianity was obliged to homologize and find a common denominator for all the religious and cultural “provincialisms” of the known world. This grandiose unification could be accomplished only by translating into Christian terms all the forms, figures and values that were to be homologized … For our purpose it is important to note that together with Neo-Platonic Philosophy, the first values to be accepted by Christianity were the initiatory themes and the imagery of the mysteries … [Christianity] came in the end to borrow from the liturgies and the vocabulary of the Hellenistic mysteries.” M. Eliade _Rites and Symbols of Initiation_ 1965:121.

Whether one looks at the classicist Werner Jeager, the Lutheran historian Adolf Harnack, or the Rumanian Catholic comparatiovist Eliade, the same picture emerges of later Christiasnity as a syncretism.

My read on Cheney's view of history is easily reflected in Parson Thwackam's view of Christianity.

“When I mention religion;
I mean the Christian religion;
and not only the Christian religion,
but the Protestant religion;
and not only the Protestant religion,
but the Church of England.” (from Tom Jones)

In an as yet to find a publisher cross-cultural/comparative historical study of controversies over canon (which applies equally to history as it does to literature, and in fact Cheney's polemic about the history standards is just a continuation of the literature controversy), I show that in every case controversy over canon/standards has been political at root. What is going on currently is nothing but political, and we do ourselves a disservice if we operate on the assumption that the Cheneys of this world are or intend to be operating on an intellectual level. Pointing out inaccuracies, misquotations or misrepresentations on her part is beside the point. What is occurring is a struggle for power, not truth. Lose sight of that fact and she/they win.

Date: Tue, 22 Nov 1994 12:36:14 PCT
Sender: H-NET List for World History (
Subject: History Standards and Catholicism
To: Multiple recipients of list H-WORLD (

I confess to having been slightly amused by Gordon Thomasson's response to my observation: “For the last 2000 years the Christian faith—and more specifically the Catholic Church—has been a common factor in European history”. Assuming his criticism is intended seriously, I shall respond in kind.

For the record, I don’t recall ever having stated that I am Catholic. In the case of all the other people you mentioned—or at least all that I can figure out—their view of religion “… the Church of England” etc., is predicated on the fact that they are trying to support their own position. If I am not Catholic, your ad hominem attack falls flat on its face. Read Cheney however you will, but don’t lump me together with her just because we appear to agree with each other.

But, I am Catholic. A convert, and proud of it. I am not dense enough to believe that the Catholic Church can do no wrong, nor am I blind as to the important evolutionary stages of the Church. I cringe when people say things like “Gallileo and other Good Catholics” (once said by a Catholic priest!!). I marvel at the Spanish Inquisition. Still, I am Catholic. That does not make my opinion on the subject irrelevant or irrevocably colored.

None of which alters my point. From the years St Paul journeyed along the Greek coast and died in Rome, Catholic Faith has been an important common factor in European history. Ireland was not converted until St Patrick's visit. England (whose anglican archbishop once described the Pope as a wayward italian missionary) was converted through the work of tireless believers. Every country which has either accepted or rejected the Catholic message has in some important way been affected by it. To carry the thought a bit further, some of the first European explorers beleived they had a divine mission. American life (largely as a result of these explorers and subsequent immigration) is littered with examples of the importance of the Church. Render the Catholic influence nugatory and, just as a brief example, rename all of the following cities:

1. St Louis
2. San Francisco (San Bernadino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, etc
3. St Augustine, Fla.
4. Des Moines, Iowa (the name means “place of monks”) and the like

Expunge the Catholic influence from american society, and you must recolonize all the areas once under French or Spanish control (Jesuits, most of them).

I am not suggesting that all Catholic influence has been good. NOR am I suggesting that Catholic is the only yard-stick that might be used. Rather, I am suggesting that the growth of the Catholic Church can usefully form a framework around which to reconstruct European (and yes, European-meets-World) history.

The syncretism argument you advance is neither new nor accurate. I see no point in arguing further on this point. I can let the magisterium speak for herself.

I do not know your ideological leanings, nor even if you have them at all. I do not know if you see Catholicism as at all relevant to society past and present (although to deny that Catholicism and adherents to the Faith is something akin to that “uninformed or else studiously ignorant” approach you mention. Perhaps I should apply to the flat-earth society for both of us?

I wish to make one final comment. Teaching history to students IS about getting students to think about the material, but it is NOT ONLY about this. It is about shaping the mind of the student so that he is able to grasp new data and assimilate it within the available framework. A parent's job in this regard is a good analogy. A parent should bring up a child so that he has some frame of reference from which to evaluate any experience. We must first give the student a framework within which to work, if only to give him the opportunity to replace it with another. As a case in point, I was fed the belief from my teachers and professors that the French Revolution was a positive development toward modernity. It was an important event, worthy of extensive study. {Marx was still the rage at the time}. I have since done that research, and concluded that the picture my teachers painted was as inaccurate as it was general. The French Revolution was not a mass uprising of popular hatred for the King as has been commonly supposed. Rather, it is a mistake, albeit one with terrifying consequences, for which the French have spent the last 200+ years trying to find a justification.

At issue here is not merely replacing one set of standards with another, although that is certainly an issue. Rather, the problem is that, to quote the Christian Science Monitor from a few days ago, we are now setting out to study “world forces”, in which everything is intrinsically morally and politically equal. Events and people are replaced by “forces”—which I assume means societal forces as deemed important from our current sociological perspective. This must be stopped.

P.S. “mindless ultra conservative”, I have already been described as the caboose man for Ghengis Khan. Reagan, Cheney, Limbaugh et al are not true conservatives. Let's deal with intelligent discussion rather than hurl mud at each other, albeit in the form of political labels that truly do not mean very much

Date: Wed, 23 Nov 1994 09:34:28 PCT
Sender: H-NET List for World History (
From: Sandi Cooper (SANSI@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU)
Subject: History Standards

Prof. Gordon Thomasson's discussion of Christianity as an organizing principle of western civilization was a delight to read in light of the current uproar ov er what constitutes historical truth.

For those among us who doubt his conclusion—that the attack on world history and US history “standards” is politically motivated—I suggest an immersion in Gramsci's analysis of the role of intellectuals in modern society, those who find their justification in echoing their masters and those with heads that are screwed on independently. Given the current political climate in the US, added to the general ignorance of history, the fear of not obtaining tenure among young scholars, etc., etc., there is little reason to be optimistic. Date: Sun, 20 Nov 1994 17:30:49 EDT Sender: World-L—Forum on non-Eurocentric world history ( From: Dwain Pruitt, Wofford College ( Subject: The Rise of Democracy as World History

After having had the opportunity do some globetrotting last year thanks to a scholarship provided by my university, I am very much interested in pursuing this debate on the nature of the instruction of world history. To argue that Americans are, as a general rule, quite ignorant of the rest of the world is not difficult. Upon returning to the States, I was asked if there are paved roads in Africa. The idea that all Arabs, who, by the way, live in some mysterious Arabian continent all to themselves since only black people live in Africa, are terrorists bent on religious fanaticism runs rampant, as does the idea that all Asians eat dogs and are communists. In doing a series of public lectures on my travels, I have been horrified to learn just how isolated we truly are.

With that said, I would like to offer a few humble observations about world history and its instruction. It seems to me that the study of world history as the pursuit of democracy does not move us away from Eurocentrism. The idealization of Western-style democracy still exalts the role of the West in world history. As George Ayittey argued when he spoke here, the extension of Western governmental styles to the developing world has caused these nations to lose sight of the things that their cultures already valued and taught; as a result, the governmental institutes “for the people and by the people” are no such thing! In would be a tragedy to study nonwestern thought only in terms of how it has attempted to accept and then manipulate foreign ideas. Rather, I would argue that it is best to study world history through the identification of common elements (e.g. conceptions of God, gender roles, “race,” etc.) and then working backward from those to understand the differences that exist. Not only does this give the untrained mind something to grab quickly, it also means beginning with a concept more or less familiar to the study and the creation of a intellectual “comfort zone” of sorts. Yes, it is impossible to not consider the role of the West in history. Throughout the world, its impact can be felt and seen in everything from language to Michael Jackson posters in Bangkok. But, to focus all of our study on the extension of our own cultural mindset results in no new knowledge.

Date: Mon, 21 Nov 1994 06:59:23 -0500
Sender: World-L—Forum on non-Eurocentric world history (
Subject: Re: The Rise of Democracy as World History


Your point is well taken, but I suspect it might obscure an important distinction between specifically western institutions of political democracy, and a much broader notion that the development of society has come to depend upon and encourages the development and participation of the individual. While an ideology of individualism might be peculiarly Western, the fact of increasing individuation seems to be universal in our world. While formal democracy is honored at least in principle in much of the West and often elsewhere, the needs and will of the masses can no longer be ignored anywhere.

It is interesting that while much of the world today adheres the the principle of democracy, whether social or political, as contradictions deepen in the West, we begin to have our doubts about it as a general good. If people are no longer willing to advocate and struggle for democratic rights, what then are they accepting as the alternative? Paternalistic autocracy? Fascism? Capitalist world domination? I think there is a moral imperative that whoever doubts social or political democracy should at the same time indicate what other system is better. Agnosticism and isolation are no longer realistic possibilities. Date: Mon, 21 Nov 1994 09:07:23 EST Sender: World-L—Forum on non-Eurocentric world history ( From: Hugh Clark, Ursinus College (hclark@ACAD.URSINUS.EDU) Subject: Re: The Rise of Democracy as World History

I have just joined this list, so I hope my contribution to the debate I have discovered on the teaching of world history is not simply a rehashing of old ground.

I am particularly responding to the comments on “democracy” as an organizing framework for world history. Those of us who are rooted in western culture and tradition must be very careful about understanding what terms might mean in a non-western context. “Democracy” is a case in point.

Euro-American cultures (and apologies to others in the remote Pacific) that have inherited a vocabulary that traces itself to the classicial Mediterranean and especially to a political tradition that evolved in western Europe over the last millenium “know” what “democracy” means—it is a term that comes into our dialog with a long accumulation of meaning, even if we don’t necessaril y agree on what that is.

This is not the case elsewhere. In east Asia, the term has a history of about 100 years. It was first rendered in Chinese characters by Japanese interpreters of the west late in the 19th century; they chose to render it as minshu shugi (or minzhi zhuyi in Chinese), which rougholy translates as “people boss ism.” This was an entirely new term in asian political dialog; it did not have roots that traced back to a long ago classicla era, nor did it refelct a process of political evolution covering a millenium—it had, in short, no inherited meaning, so it could be defined as the new interpreters saw fit.

This became an issue five years ago during the famous Tiananmen demonstrations in Beijing, which were “pro-democracy” according to western interpretations. But they weren’t pro-”democracy,” they were pro-”minzhu zhuyi,” whatever that means. If one reads carefully the comments of the leaders of the students, people such as Wuer Kaixi, etc., it is clear that what they meant was a far cry from what someone rooted in the western interpretation of “democracy” might mean.

My point is that when we apply our own vocabulary to other cultures, we might be surprised by the outcome. To assume that there is a Holy Grail out there to which all cultures are evolving is to project a value system that may not be universaly acceptable. I would, therefore, be critical of any plan to organize the teaching of world history around such a model.

Date: Mon, 21 Nov 1994 10:09:00 PST
Sender: World-L—Forum on non-Eurocentric world history (
Subject: History of Democracy

Mel Page applauds Hugh Clarke's debut. Let me take a shot at him. Nothing personal, Hugh! But I must strongly disagree.

Organizing the history of the world at least partially around the history of the democracy is something I would do without the slightest hesitation. (Actual implementation, avoiding tendentiousness, etc. would be tricky, of course.)

It really comes down to one issue. Is democracy important? I think it is. No one would hesitate to include some such subject as “the rise of the state” or “the military revolution” as an important theme in such a course. These are important phenomena in world history, posing tremendous dangers for human survival. Democracy, as ideal(s) and in attempted implementation, is also an important phenomenon, and one that offers at least some hope of a better way of doing things. It is true enough that democracy has fallen far short of the best hopes that have been attached to it, and has not prevented war and imperialism. But to say it is not a historical subject of importance is to capitulate to people who have already decided that democracy is no good. The judgement of democracy's irrelevance to serious history so evident before 1989 (I can expand on this) is not the product of a dispassionate weighing of the evidence.

To characterize a pro-democratic stance as necessarily a pro-Western colonialist stance to the rest of the world's cultures is also wrong. It underestimates the strength of grass-roots democratic practice in culture's world wide, and over-estimates the strength of democratic sentiment in “the west.” Phil Paine and I wrote about the first subject in the 1993 Journal of World History. On the second subject, the idea that “we” all know what democracy means, that there is a “western” consensus, will not stand serious examination. Look, for instance, at the documents produced in France between 1789 and 1799, and you will find *every single idea that has ever tried to pass itself off as democracy.* Every single one of those ideas, good and bad, is still alive today, and competing for the right to be *the* Western idea of democracy. The battle of values continues, and plenty of people within the sound of your voice think of it as no more than “people boss-ism.” Such people include all the censors of our time, promoting their “progressive” or “conservative” agendas in the name of “community standards,” past, present or future.

To sum up this rant. You can’t have a “value-free” world history curriculum. It will either include democracy as an important theme, or it won’t. The decision will be made on the basis of *both* knowledge of world history and one's feelings about human politics and its relationship to morality. It can’t be dodged by labelling democracy as an “essentially” cultural value that belongs to only one part of humanity.

Date: Mon, 21 Nov 1994 11:27:23 GMT-5
Sender: World-L—Forum on non-Eurocentric world history (
Organization: East Tennessee State University
Subject: Re: History of Democracy

Steve Muhlenberger writes, in part, defending the place of democracy in world history…

Organizing the history of the world at least partially around the history of the democracy is something I would do without the slightest hesitation. (Actual implementation, avoiding tendentiousness, etc. would be tricky, of course.)

It really comes down to one issue. Is democracy important? I think it is.

I agree! But some have suggested that it is THE important theme. Others have suggested teaching history as teleology, leading to democracy. Both such views should be rejected as overly narrow; perhaps Steve would as well.

to say it is not a historical subject of importance is to capitulate to people who have already decided that democracy is no good.

I don’t think that's what Hugh had in mind (but he should speak for himself); I certainly did not. It is unfortunate that many who do not adopt the “democracy is everything” approach are attacked by some (I trust not by Steve) as, ipso facto, adopting a democracy “is not a subject of historical importance” approach. To do so is to engage in gross distortion and should be condemned!

You can’t have a “value-free” world history curriculum. It will either include democracy as an important theme, or it won’t.

This comes close to suggesting an “all or nothing” view, however, and troubles me. I believe strongly in a valueS approach to world history, and those values would include democracy and individualism, along with others (my students would probably say non-violence, but I’m not so sure that's exactly the way I would put it).

Date: Mon, 21 Nov 1994 13:07:54 EST
Sender: World-L—Forum on non-Eurocentric world history (
From: Hugh Clark (hclark@ACAD.URSINUS.EDU)
Subject: Re: History of Democracy
To: Multiple recipients of list WORLD-L (

My opening foray in the arcaneae of WORLD-L has elicited several responses, impelling me to offer a rejoinder.

Notably, Steve Muhlberger (honestly Steve: “unipissing”? at least its not “bipissing”!) has “taken a shot” across my bows, but I fear his aim is off. As Mel Page notes, what Steve addresses is not what I had in mind.

I would never disagree that the rise of democracy within the EuroAmerican tradition is among world history's most important developments, right up there with “rise of the state,” agriculture, religion, etc. I did not mean to dismiss the importance of democracy. BUT that is not the issue that was being addressed and to which I responded. Rather, the question is whether a world history course should be organized around the issue of democracy. Here, I think, there is a danger because the word, however, it has been rendered in other languages—languages that do not share the English heritage from the classical world and which therefore must coin entirely new words to express the concept—cannot mean what it means in English.

Second, Steve interprets me to have claimed that there is a “western consensus” on what democracy means. Far from it; I doubt any two westerners (?) could come to agreement. What I said was that individually we all think we do know. If I could paraphrase Justice Frankfurter (? or who was it?): “We may not be able to define it, but we sure know it when we see it.” This is not the case in other cultures for the simple reason that there is no “it” there—the word has no history to be defined or to provide a definition.

Finally, I never meant to imply that a “pro-democratic stance is necessarily a pro-Western colonialist stance.” Only that when we project our own cultural vocabulary onto others, we may be projecting a a vision and reaching an interpretation that “the other” would never reach themselves.

Date: Mon, 21 Nov 1994 09:46:00 PST
Sender: World-L—Forum on non-Eurocentric world history (
Subject: World history; history of democracy

Creating a world-history curriculum is a tricky matter, no doubt about it. Teaching “the west and the rest” just re-inforces existing prejudices about Western uniqueness and superiority. Casting the west as universal villain is no improvement at all, and no more accurate as far as I am concerned.

On the other hand, students in our institutions do know very little about Asia, Africa, South and Central America. They may or may not know something about Europe. It is no easy matter to introduce them to the large areas of history about which they know NOTHING WHATEVER without turning them off. The number of new facts and new perspectives to which they must be exposed is very large, even if you take a very minimal view of how much that is. I am currently teaching a course on the history of Islamic Civilization to a group of brave but ignorant students. Even though my grasp of the subject is nothing to brag about, the gap between me and them is so great that it is a constant struggle to generalize and simplify my material without taking all the life out of it.

The suggestion that an ecological perspective might be useful, or a modified annaliste perspective, or a perspective drawing on anthropology and archaeology, is one that I endorse. I also teach an ancient civilizations course, and I find it useful to start with the solidification of the earth and then spend some time on human origins, just to give people some perspective. I know of no other class at this institution where they are likely to get a feeling for the sheer size of human experience. The problem is, however, that you have to somehow put some real people with names and faces into the course, too. Even if they are usually dead white males, people are far more interested in the individuals than in the big abstractions which are in principle more inclusive.

This post is long enough; my comments on the history of democracy follow in another one.