Attack on National World History Standards

By Ross Dunn, 15 November 1994

Editor's note: this contribution was sent on 15 November, 1994, to the subscribers of Appended is a note from Dunn concerning the title.

Lynne Cheney and a few conservative allies have launched a massive campaign of disinformation regarding WORLD HISTORY: EXPLORING PATHS TO THE PRESENT, the national standards developed by the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA. Indeed, these critics are attacking the entire enterprise of world history and its teaching practitioners.

We might all welcome a reasoned national debate on world history teaching. This attack aims, however, to discredit the standards as the work of “politically correct” operatives who “hijacked” the project after President Clinton was elected and Cheney's term as chair of the NEH came to an end. Since these critics have not been able to find much in EXPLORING PATHS TO THE PRESENT to substantiate their claims that the standards represent radical revisionist history, they have resorted to flagrant misrepresentation of the contents of the book. They would like teachers and education officials to accept their erroneous accusations and never read the standards for themselves.

These attacks are being made by Cheney, various conservative columnists or talk show hosts (including Rush Limbaugh), one or two conservative members of the National Council on History Standards (individuals who largely remained silent when the council had its final major discussion on the drafting of the standards), and a scattering of conservative academics. Virtually none of these critics is a classroom teacher.

I would like to address a number of specific charges.

1) Mrs. Cheney has laid out her general position in a Washington Post article (Nov. 11): “If you look over history for the last 500 or 600 years, the rise of the West is the organizing principle, and the key to the rise of democratic standards.”

Expressed this way, she is reiterating the well-known, essentialist notion that Western civilization, particularly the history of certain political institutions, is the Big Story to which all developments in other parts of the world may be linked or subordinated. She is urging American schools to return to the days when the rise of Western civilization and world history were regarded as largely the same thing. Such an intellectual position is no longer tenable among the vast majority of either K-12 or college educators and could never be the basis for development of national history standards.

The standards are designed to serve as flexible guidelines for developing or improving courses, not as a prescribed curriculum for all schools to adopt. They do not present any single idea as the organizing principle other than a commitment to genuine globe-encircling history. They do offer a number of primary organizing ideas for eight chronological eras of world history. The standards presented under each of these eras emphasize study of large-scale developments in history (including those that cut across national or cultural boundaries) rather than study of “civilizations” as autonomous, self-perpetuating units.

2) Cheney has characterized EXPLORING as “incoherent . . . just a welter of details without priorities.” She charges that “everything is the same as everything else—gender relations under India's Gupta Empire, political and cultural achievements under Shah Abbas in Persia, and oh yes, the Magna Carta.” (USA Today, Nov. 11).

In fact the standards follow a lucid organizational plan, they are easy to read, and they include graphic presentations that can help teachers and curriculum specialists set subject matter priorities. Moreover, everything is not the same as everything else. The standards clearly guide teachers in periodizing world history, in identifying unifying themes, and in making distinctions between large-scale developments and those of regional or national significance. Cheney would have to explain how she would rank order the study of classical India, Islamic Persia, the Magna Carta, and other developments of altogether different character that occurred in completely different parts of the world at entirely different periods of time.

3) In their effort to discredit EXPLORING PATHS TO THE PRESENT Cheney and Co. have made the bizarre charge that they fail “to give any emphasis to Western civilization” (Washington Post, Nov. 11). Gilbert Sewall (head of a small, conservatively funded textbook reviewing organization) has asserted that the standards are “imbalanced by diminishing the place of Western civilization in human history” (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 11).

The teacher task forces that drafted the standards were asked to identify what they thought were the most important events, trends, and developments that occurred within each of eight designated eras of world history. The focus was on identifying the most consequential patterns of change, not on allotting so much space to “civilization A” and so much to “civilization B.” The standards are not primarily organized around the study of “cultures” as such, whether Western or otherwise. Rather they encourage critical inquiry into the question of how the world came to be the way it is. As the first chapter of EXPLORING makes clear, this world-scale approach aims “to encourage students to ask large and searching questions about the human past, to compare patterns of continuity and change in different parts of the world, and to examine the histories and achievements of particular peoples or civilizations with an eye to wider social, cultural, or economic contexts” (p. 4).

Building on these premises, EXPLORING gives a great deal of attention to European history but places it in world context. Therefore ancient Greece and its achievements are presented in the context of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern history. Medieval Europe figures prominently in the standards but in relationship to contemporaneous developments in the Islamic world, China, and other regions. The standards are emphatic about the global importance of developments in Europe in the modern centuries. For the unit focusing on 1450-1750 AD more than half the specific standard statements are concerned either with Europe or Europeans abroad. The 1750-1914 era suggests three major guiding themes: Political Revolutions and New Ideologies, the Industrial Revolution, and the Age of European Dominance. These themes are all explored in global terms, but European history figures large. How could it not?

One can only conclude that when Cheney, Sewall, and others claim that the standards diminish “the importance of the West” (Newsweek, Nov. 14), they mean that world history is not defined largely as the history of the United States and western and central Europe. On the contrary, EXPLORING is arguing that students are likely to gain a far better understanding of the importance of European ideas and action in history if the framework for their studies is the human community as a whole. If, for example, the ideals of popular sovereignty, constitutionalism, and inalienable rights that were given expression in Europe and North America in the 18th century had such power that they attracted intense public debate and experimentation among peoples of Latin America, Asia, and Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, shouldn’t students know this?

4) Cheney states that “there's nothing wrong with studying the rest of the world, but not through this massive amount of detail” (Washington Post, Nov. 11). Sewall complains that the standards stress the “arcana” of the past (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 11).

EXPLORING PATHS TO THE PRESENT is a treasury of recommendations, ideas, and classroom strategies for world history. (The content standards take up 249 pages of a 341 page document. There are 18 pages of critical thinking standards.) The teacher-scholar task forces that developed the book spent a great deal of time deciding what to exclude from it, recognizing that there is a great deal of world history that should not be part of the K-12 curriculum. Their work involved much sifting and boiling down. Their aim, however, was not to produce a list of 100 or 200 things that every child “needs to know.” Could one even imagine history teachers reaching national consensus on such an enterprise? Rather, in producing this book educators are saying: “Here's what we mean by guidelines for a rich, solid, world-class education in history.” It is now the prerogatives of states, school districts, schools, and publishers to draw on them and select from them to develop courses, curricula, and textbooks— preferably within the framework of three years of world history studies between 5th and 12th grades.

When Cheney speaks of “massive detail” and Sewall of “arcana,” they are likely referring to events and ideas that were not part of their own traditional education. One or two other media critics have implied that any subject matter dealing with Africa south of the Sahara before the 20th century should be automatically classified as “arcane.” However, teachers and scholars of today who are conversant with the history of Africa, Asia, and Latin America are likely to find very little in these standards that they would characterize as recondite. Some of the suggested exemplary activities for students are challenging (which is to be expected in “world-class” standards), and many of them offer students opportunities to be introduced to new historical figures, new places on the map, and new concepts. But how could anyone suppose that the experienced, pragmatic teachers who developed this document would be interested in cramming it with historical obscurities?

Cheney and a few others have combed through the standards to find passages that they think the public is likely to find “arcane.” Then they have declared that American kids are going to have to learn “all this stuff” as the new “official history.” This charge is outrageously deceptive since both the Bush and Clinton Departments of Education have made it perfectly clear that standards documents in all disciplines are to be regarded as voluntary. Moreover, the hundreds of student projects and activities included in EXPLORING PATHS TO THE PRESENT are presented as “examples of student achievement,” not mandated elements in a rigid course of study.

5) Gilbert Sewall asserts that “significant issues are pushed aside to please interest groups” (Newsweek, Nov. 14).

Who are these presumably “politically correct” groups? What are their interests? Do they include organizations that participated in the standards process such as the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), the National Catholic Education Association, the American Association of School Librarians, or the NEA? Mr. Sewall should be asked to identify the “groups” he has in mind.

6) Cheney has repeated over and over in the media that the U.S. history standards fail to “mention” such important figures as Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein. She is alleging of course that radical revisionists are trying deliberately to strike Edison and Einstein from American history education.

Read Examples of Student Achievement on page 262 of EXPLORING PATHS TO THE PRESENT: “Investigate the life of a scientist or inventor such as Thomas Alva Edison, Marie Sklodowska Curie, Albert Einstein, or Guglielmo Marconi. How did the work of the person you selected change society?” Why would the authors “suppress” Edison and Einstein in the U.S. history standards but include them in the world history book?

7) Sewall alleges that in the standards “the Industrial Revolution is given short shrift.”

The Industrial Revolution (in both European and world context) is one of three major guiding themes for study of the 1750-1914 era. One of six primary standards recommends student understanding of “The causes and consequences of the agricultural and industrial revolutions.” Several other standards in this era recommend study of industrialization and its economic, social, and cultural consequences in Europe and around the world. These themes are also treated prominently in the 20th century era. The first of six standards calls for student understanding of “Global and economic trends in the high period of Western dominance.”

8) In her effort to present evidence of radical revisionism in EXPLORING, Cheney has completely misrepresented at least one passage to make it support her charges. According to the Washington Post (Nov. 11), “she cited the guidelines' suggestion that students study Michelangelo to learn about “oppression and conflict in Europe” during the Renaissance. ‘What about beauty,’ she asked?”

The passage (p. 177) actually reads: “Use books such as Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstacy, Claudia Van Canon's The Inheritance, and Barbara Willard's A Cold Wind Blowing to discuss social oppression and conflict in Europe during the Renaissance. How did such conditions conflict with prevailing humanist principles?”

Moreover, a student exemplar on page 43 of the U.S. standards reads: “Analyze examples of Renaissance art, such as Michelangelo's painting of the Sistine Chapel or the sculpture of David for what it says about the relationship between man and God and the position and power of the individual.”

Cheney's method of making blatant, condemnatory generalizations from bits of language and scattered omissions suggests that the true p.c. fanatics (if they are out there somewhere) might use the same tactics to denounce the standards as monstrously Eurocentric!

9) Many teachers have been grieved to see Al Shanker, president of the AFT, weighing in on the side of the ultra conservative critics with an utterly unsupportable attack on the standards. He is quoted in the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 11): “[EXPLORING PATHS TO THE PRESENT] is a travesty, a caricature of what these things should be—sort of a cheapshot, leftist point-of-view of history. . . . Everything that is European or American, or that has to do with white people is evil and oppressive, while Genghis Khan is a nice sweet guy just bringing his culture to other places.”

This statement is an offense to the dedicated and distinguished teacher-scholars who wrote the standards, and it is completely without foundation. To be specific, what does EXPLORING actually say about Genghis Khan [Chinggis Khan] and the Mongol empire?

“. . . the Mongol warlords intruded in one way or another on the lives of almost all peoples of Eurasia. The conquests were terrifying, but the stabilizing of Mongol rule led to a century of fertile commercial and cultural interchange across the continent” (p. 128).

“Describe the destructive Mongol conquests of 1206-1279. . . .” (p. 146).

“Write a short story as told by someone your age about the siege of their home city in Persia by a Mongol army” (p. 146).

“Use the reported remarks of Chinggis Khan—’Man's highest joy is in victory: to conquer one's enemies, to pursue them, to deprive them of their possessions, to make their beloved weep . . .’—to examine the record of Mongol conquests.”

“Construct a historical argument explaining the relationship between military success and Mongol army organization, weapons, tactics, and policies of terror.”

Gary Nash has challenged Shanker to retract his statement in the Wall Street Journal.

Under Lynne Cheney's chairmanship at NEH the National Council on History Standards charged the National Center for History to develop standards in world, not European history. They took the charge seriously, affirming along with the dozens of teachers and scholars who contributed to this project that high school graduates who are going to live their lives in an intricately interconnected world and pursue careers and vocations in the global marketplace require a fundamental understanding of the forces that have over the long span of time shaped our contemporary world. That means a solid world history education— not a tour of every culture and society but critical inquiry into the movements, trends, conflicts, transformations, and cultural flowerings of greatest import and most enduring significance.

A closing anecdote: The other day I spoke to my brother-in-law, a southern Wisconsin dairy farmer with children in 8th and 10th grades. “Of course we need world history in the curriculum,” he told me. “On a dairy farm you have to deal with the global economy every day. It isn’t the Wisconsin market or the national market that sets the price of the commodities I produce. It's the global market. To understand the global market, you have to know a lot about the world.” Amen.

I would like to urge all of you who feel as I do about the injustice of these fierce attacks and on the importance of world history in the schools to take active steps:

I will be happy to hear from any of you.
Ross Dunn San Diego State University

From: rdunn@sciences.SDSU.Edu (Ross E. Dunn)
Subject: Re: History Standards: question on title
FROM: Ross Dunn
Date sent: Tue, 13 Dec 94 14:19:58 PST

Question on the Title

By Ross Dunn, 13 December 1994

A Response to:

From: Pier M. Larson ( Penn State University

Perhaps someone familiar with the new “History Standards” will explain the curious choice of title for the project. Why is a project which apparently seeks to reinvigorate the teaching and learning of history and to emphasize the evanescent nature of historical truth touted as a new set of “standards” in the teaching of history? While I find myself agreeing with most of what the proponents/defenders of the new standards are saying, the very title itself I find disconcerting.

When President Bush and the fifty governors met in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1989 to discuss national education goals, they identified history as one of five core disciplines for which national standards of achievement should be developed. Educational standards in the U.S, they said, should be “world class” and comparable to those of other industrialized countries. Subsequently, educators undertook “national standards” projects in a number of disciplines, including geography, civics, economics, and social studies. As I understand it, the National Council on History Standards (appointed to advise the National Center for History in the Schools in developing history standards) discussed at some length the form that “standards” ought to take.

The terms “standards,” then, has been used since 1989 to characterize the projects in several disciplines. The history standards in critical thinking take the form of an outline of specific skills that students should acquire. The content standards (which take up the better part of the three published volumes) take the form of specific “understandings” that students should demonstrate. To make these “understandings” concrete, the history volumes include examples of student achievement, that is, specific classroom activities by which students might show that they understand the “standard.” There are 2,599 of these exemplary activities in the U.S. and World History volumes combined. (I paid my neighbors 7th grade daughter $10 to count them for me! If anyone wants to check us, please give me your results.) These exemplars are not the standards as such, though hostile critics of the project have focused almost entirely on them, picking out exemplars here and there that they can construe as having a “liberal bias.”

I should add that the history standards volumes are not compilations of historical conclusions or assertions that students are invited to absorb.

In short, the term “standards” is not an entirely satisfactory one to describe what the volumes contain. This is the word that Bush and the governors used to describe the goal of high achievement in certain core disciplines. It's the label that has consistently been used to describe, however imperfectly, the projects in all the disciplines.