Debate over a conservative view of the world history standards

A dialog on the H-World list, 30 November, ff., 1994

Publisher's note: I Chris Garton-Zavetsky's conservative position might not please all conservatives.

Date: Wed, 30 Nov 1994 15:05:26 -0500
Sender: H-NET List for World History (
From: Chris Garton-Zavesky (
Subject: History Standards-New York Times Article

I remember reading an article recently by Thomas Sowell (I think) which claimed much the same thing this NY Times article did about standards. Sowell's point, briefly, was that public education isn’t failing at all, given its objectives. It strives to make people feel good, whether they learn anything of use or not. It strives to do away with terms like “excellence” and the like because these assume hierarchical evaluation. Rather than create students capable of critical thinking skills, it creates students who are completely unable to discern good from bad and right from wrong, or even, heaven forbid, better from worse.

The question becomes, to my mind, is this a laudable goal for public education? Fundamentally and emphatically, my answer is no. Students who have the capacity to see world forces but can not understand their overdue balance notice are no good to anyone. Students who have their heads filled with gibberish about the virtues of knowing all cultures can not see the value of their own. They are devoid of all reference points.

An absence of standards, which is what the NY Times article observes, is exactly the problem. Replacing one set of standards with another is a natural process of evolution—assuming we are all willing to accept that this sort of thing just happens —- but replacing one set of standards with rules that preclude the existence of standards leads our students into an area where neither they nor we are equipped to operate.

I’ve said this before, and it remains relevant to the discussion, so I’ll say it again. Students do need to look beyond mere data to see a larger picture and to challenge whatever assumptions they have formed. They are only able to do this when they have data beyond which to look and discernable assumptions to challenge.

I’m quite sure I will be accused of reactionary politics and an inability to see beyond the narrow, politically motivated approach to which I am prone because of my euro-centric background, but forward I must plow in any event. An absence of standards, and in this case an active campaign to study “world forces” without a framework to understand them, is destructive to the well-being of the children and thus to the future of society. Anarchy is not a form of government. No amount of papering over the issue with charges of left-wing or right-wing politics and “greatwhitemale” bias or whatever can change the fundamental point. Are we going to have standards for our students to meet or are we going to declare that there is no longer a need for standards?

Date: Thu, 1 Dec 1994 16:00:46 -0500
Sender: H-NET List for World History (
Subject: History Standards—New York Times Article
From: Bob Bain (, John Carroll University

Chris Garton-Zavesky wrote:

Students do need to look beyond mere data to see a larger picture and to challenge whatever assumptions they have formed. They are only able to do this when they have data beyond which to look and discernable assumptions to challenge.


An absence of standards, and in this case an active campaign to study “world forces” without a framework to understand them, is destructive to the well-being of the children and thus to the future of society.


It seems to me that there is a contradiction here—the world history standards you dismiss are trying to engage students in painting the “larger picture” and “to challenge whatever assumptions they have formed.” I would think you would love them for creating that larger framework, thus enabling students to “look beyond mere data,” and to establish another level of generalization.

Unless I have misread the standards, I think they provide exactly what you seek.

Bob Bain, John Carroll University

Date: Fri, 2 Dec 1994 13:06:44 -0500
Sender: H-NET List for World History (
From: Chris Garton-Zavesky (
Subject: History Standards—New York Times Article

For the record, let me state again my objections to the standards.

  1. In the name of “seeing a wider picture”, history becomes the study of “world forces” rather than individuals —- sounds a good deal like predestination and all that rot.
  2. Under the guise of “placing European history in its world context” or some equally pompous educational expression, the fundamental importance of European history in getting us where we are now is being submerged. No, it's not being eliminated completely, but I remain unconvinced that either history (european or world) is done justice by trying to cover too much.
  3. If you have a semester to cover the War between the States (that's another discussion), you can clearly examine in some detail the “common people” in so far as records of these people exist—but when we must introduce hundreds of years of history in one year, we do not have time to examine “common people” without doing serious harm to the remainder of the picture. (This is, in some respects, a subdivision of #2).
  4. The methodology of “social historians” who seek to study “the common people” and “democracy” and all that rot is quite unproven. To anticipate the obvious objection, the Annalistes assembled a documentary record from which to draw their conclusions, but such work is rarely done by modern social historians. History is not merely a subset of sociology.
  5. Statistics and history are not the same thing.
  6. As just one example among many, the Bishop of the Diocese of Raleigh has used what he calls an “African proverb” to couch his newly defined mission to the children of his See: “It takes a whole village to raise a child”. Problem is, he presents this as if it is something uniquely African—what I call the Benighted tribes theory of history. The French (to name the case I know best) have had this approach for years, but instead of quoting it as a principle of French (or European or whatever) society, he insists it is an African proverb.
  7. “Have you read Shakespeare in the original Klingon?”

Food for thought.

Chris Garton-Zavesky
Date: Sun, 4 Dec 1994 23:57:00 -0500
Sender: H-NET List for World History (
From: Haines Brown (, Central Connecticut State University
Subject: History Standards To: Multiple recipients of list H-WORLD (

I’ve tried to restrain myself from throwing myself into this interesting debate, but Chris Garton-Zavesky's latest contribution destroyed my resolve. I’ll try to follow his good example and be brief, and I will address only the first four of his seven points.

  1. If I understand him correctly, Chris is saying that while a broad view of history is unobjectionable, it should not have led the writers of the standards to study social forces rather than invidiuals.

    I’m not convinced this is a real issue. I suspect most historians, and perhaps Chris himself, assume that BOTH individuals and social forces are the engine of history. That would seem a common-sense view, but the modern West European ideology of individualism on one hand, and a mechanical model of natural processes on the other, persuaded many people in the nineteenth century that the determination of natural forces contradicted human free will and moral responsibility. For a century now, this naive view has not carried weight in scholarly circles. For one thing, the development of thermodynamics late in the nineteeth century and quantum mechanics in the twentieth make clear that in many, if not all areas of science, determinism is probabilistic, not unequivocal. An (objective) probabilistic determinism gives plenty of scope for the efficacy of individual struggle and moral responsibility.

  2. Chris seems to imply that placing the particulars of history in relation to a broader situation should not obscure the primacy of the particular and how the particular of European history explains how we got where we are.

    The issue of the relation of the particular and the general or universal is certainly an old one, but to insist on the primacy of the particular seems peculiarly modern and West European, in fact, 18th and 19th century German and perhaps English, the fruit of Newtonian atomism. A reduction of history to the particular raises enormous problems. If the past determines the present, then history should wind down, not up. Where then is the creative and moral responsibility? Surely the course of history is as much a result of struggles in the present as it is of the weight of the past, and if so, then the relation of the particular to the general must surely be as significant as the particular itself.

    Chris does not identity his social location, and so who is the “we” he is talking about? This is a list on world history, with subscribers all over the world, and it draws the participation of social groups whose relation might possibly be contradictory. So therefore the use of the term we, as Chris does here, without the particularity and identity of a particular we, must strike most people as rather colonial. In my own city, people of European heritage constitute a minority. The elements of African, Caribbean and Native American culture blend with the traditions of Europe, both East and West, in complex ways that have given rise to various syntheses that are not easily resolved into simple constituent elements. To reduce those proud traditions to that of Europe would only be insulting and, more importantly, fly in the face of the facts.

    Culture is a complex flux that is necessarily undefinable. Everyone's culture is different, and everyone participates in the active construction of culture. To reduce that complexity to European culture is unrealistic, and to freeze that culture by identifying it simply as an inheritance of the past, and to identify that culture in practice with the mental activity of a few white rich males, seems perverse. We all create our own culture, although we don’t create it just as we please, but in terms of the various traditions with which we come into contact, we nevertheless are sui generis, not simple agents of the past.

    There is a long-standing debate between the advocates of Western Civ and of world history, and their difference revolves around the very point that Chris raises. People who advocate Western Civ are indeed seeking the roots of the power culture in the US today. But does world history pretend to do that same? Sometimes it is said that we are all citizens of a global village, and by learning the tradition of our fellow villagers, we acquire identity as global citizens. I’m not pursuaded, but it does illustrate that not ALL history necessarily is a search for roots.

  3. Chris feels that popular history is all well and fine, but the common people count less in the weight of history than some unmentioned others whom he does not care to label or define.

    Well, if history is a discovery of “our” roots, my roots are of very common folk, I assure you. So therefore I should be studying only common people, if I follow Chris' prescription. But I’m sure this is not what he meant. What he meant were the shakers and doers of history, or at least what a small group of intellectuals decided were the shakers and doers. But if history is the product of the thoughts and actions of people of wealth and power, then what happens to my free choice and moral responsibility, since I’m not one of them and neither were my ancestors. If the Golden Rule is that, He who has the gold, rules, then are we not back to objective historical forces that swallow up the individual? I don’t see how Chris can reconcile a rugged individualism that springs from the breast of human nature, and the objective forces that make some indviduals count and not others.

  4. I don’t want to belabor this. The term “social history” means quite different things in different national traditions. It is not clear that there is a distictive methodology of social history. The Annales School is just one kind of social history, and I’m not sure there is a common methodological thread even there. I’m not sure what it means to say the Annalists “assembled a documentary record,” or why the Annales tradition is presumed to be over. What method is Chris thinking of? “Thick description” with coherence a function of a presumed commmon human nature? But that seems awfully close to the position Chris artculated in his earlier points. I would not presume to dismiss anyone else's chosen field as illicit, nor would I presume to reject a methodology without stating what it is.

Haines Brown

Date: Thu, 8 Dec 1994 17:26:27 -0500
Sender: H-NET List for World History (
From: Joyce Appleby (
History Department, UCLA
Subject: History Standards

If Charles Krauthammer is in the loop, the criticism of the NATIONAL STANDARDS is part of an orchestrated attack on the NEH. In Thursday's WASHINGTON POST he made the following instructive comments, after recognizing a “willigness to go after middle-class welfare” in a letter addressed to Newt Gingrich,

Co-President for Domestic Policy.

A nicely symbolic start would be the elimination of those welfare check writers for the intellectual classes, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The beauty of these cuts is the cultural side benefit that comes from strangling agencies that cannot—it has by now been proven—be kept out of the hands of the academic left. The recently issued American and world history “standards,” which turn political correctness into a federal mandate, are an object lesson: federal ‘culture’ agencies are beyond redemption.

People who have devoted their lives to education have been reduced to members of an “intellectual class,” self-interestedly trying to promote the production and teaching knowledge—just another interest group out there.

It's challenging in a sense to have to defend our work and the values it is predicated upon, but we had better get organized if we want to do it effectively. I wrote today to the president of my university and the president of my alma mater. I hope many of you will do the same. We need to work quickly to reach both supportive and hostile members of Congress, and our presidents probably have the most influence upon them. I urge you all to get the NATIONAL STANDARDS FOR UNITED STATES HISTORY and WORLD HISTORY, $18.95 each plus $5. postage and handling from the National Center for History in the Schools, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA 90024. If the STANDARDS is merely a staging ground for a larger war on the NEH, NEA, NPR, and NHPRC and everything else that involved federal support of education and culture, then let's take our bearing now for the fights ahead.

Date: Fri, 9 Dec 1994 10:20:20 -0500
Sender: H-NET List for World History (
From: Sandi Cooper (
Graduate School, City University of New York
Subject: History Standards

To underscore the importance of Joyce Appleby's recent posting regarding the war on the NEH, NEA, etc., I cite statement in a recent “New Yorker” article by David Remnick entitled (Lost in Space) which assesses Newt Gingrich's intellectual baggage. Towards the end, Remnick writes:

Now conservatism, including Gingrich, wants desperately to make its domestic agenda the new crusade, the fill-in for that great absence in American life—the Cold War. Irving Kristol, who remains important in the movement (and not only as William's father), wrote last year in “The National Interest,” ‘There is no ‘after the Cold War’ for me. So far from having ended’ my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos… . Now that the other ‘Cold War’ is over, the real cold war has begun. We are far less prepared for this cold war, far more vulnerable to our enemy, than was the case against a global Communist threat.’

As John Patrick Diggins wrote recently the “The New York Times” about the History standards project, it reflected the liberal corruption of the University by not privilging charismatic leaders of the past as heros for children and young people. And Diggins, appointed to the CUNY Graduate Faculty by the successors of Gertrude Himmelfarb, insists that leftists inhabit most of academia. [Himmelfarb for the uninitated is William Kristol's mother as well as a distinguished historian with little patience for social history.]

The struggle that Joyce Appleby anticipates will be a very long march.

Date: Sun, 11 Dec 1994 15:30:33 -0500
Sender: H-NET List for World History (
From: Paul Filio (
Cincinnati Public Schools
Subject: History Standards

For those of you who have been following this particular thread, you may be interested to know that Diane Ravitch has written a thoughtful but harsh critique in the latest edition of Education Week (”Standards in U.S. History: An Assessment”, Dec. 7, 1994). Although her article focuses on the U.S. History Standards, her criticism is also aimed at the World History Standards. Her major complaint is that the standards contain “a persistent strand of political bias that is unaceptable in a document that aspires to set national standards.”

Also in the same issue of Education Week, is a notice that Lynne Cheney has started a National Review Panel to “critique proposed voluntary national education standards.” She apparently doesn’t believe that NESIC can do an good job. Note who the funder is: Readers' Digest Association.

I hope people will take the time to read her comments and I would be interested in hearing responses.

Paul Filio, Curr. Spec., Social Studies, Cincinnati Public Schools
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