Press reports on world history standards

November 1994

Wall Street Journal

By Gary Putka, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal, 11 November, 1994

Historians Propose Curriculum Tilted Away From West
Critics Worry Contributions Of Europeans, Americans Will Not Get Proper Due

A federally funded panel of educators recommended a major shift toward nonWestern cultures in the teaching of world history, raising the ire of critics who fear that the European antecedents of the U.S. would get short shrift in the classroom.

In a 314-page document, a panel led by historians at the University of California at Los Angeles urged that students between fifth and 12th grade gain an enhanced understanding of Asian, African and South American history, and especially their influence on Western civilization.

The document, intended to serve as the first set of national standards for history curriculum, has been widely circulated in draft form and is already a blueprint for textbooks in the making. Under the Goals 2000 education act, a panel to be appointed by President Clinton will consider the history standards for national certification.

But the heavy influence in the document on non-European influences, especially in the period between Christ's birth and the 20th century, prompted a rash of criticism, including some from people who sat on the National Council for History Standards, which advised the authors.

“It's a travesty, a caricature of what these things should be—sort of a cheapshot, leftist point-of-view of history,” said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “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.”

Gilbert Sewall, a historian who was a member of the advisory council, said that the standards were “imbalanced by diminishing the place of Western civilization in human history,” and by stressing what he termed the “arcana” of the past. To make room for expanded studies of cultures such as those of ancient Africa and Persia, he said, people “once considered the dominating figures of their age—Julius Caesar, Martin Luther, Darwin, Freud—are marginalized or passed over lightly.”

Other historians praised the new standards, which also urged that students be forced to read and write more analytically about history, and not merely regurgitate facts. Brian Copenhaver, a Renaissance Europe scholar at UCLA, said that students “will be able to construct a rich context of historical perspective” from the proposed curriculum.

But Mr. Sewall, director of a nonprofit organization that reviews textbooks, said the 29-member standards advisory council had heated disagreements about the recommendations, but guided by UCLA, settled on a compromise document without taking a final vote. Ross Dunn, editor of the standards and a history professor at San Diego State University, denied that Western civilization was shortchanged. But he acknowledged that “some choices had been made to emphasize other cultures.”

Ross Dunn, editor of the standards and a history professor at San Diego State University, denied that Western civilization was shortchanged. But he acknowledged that “some choices had been made to emphasize other cultures.”

Mr. Dunn said he would rather have students graduate from high school knowing less detail about European history, than for them to graduate “not knowing anything about the history of China, the industrial revolution in Japan or the Middle East, where we just fought a war.”


By Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post Staff Writer, A SECTION, 11 November 1994

World History Teaching Standards Draw Critics. As With American Guidelines Last Month, Dissenters Say Western Contributions Shortchanged

The same study group that ignited a debate last month over “political correctness” in the teaching of American history yesterday released a new set of standards for world history, garnering fresh criticism for ignoring tradition in favor of an eclectic approach of questionable relevance to American students.

Critics say the world standards shortchange the influence of Western civilization, focus on its sins and fill public school history curricula with material drawn from a mammoth grab-bag of world cultures past and present.

“It's a welter of detail, an outpouring of information,” said Lynne V. Cheney, who chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) during the Bush administration and approved initial funding for the standards.

“By deciding not to give any emphasis to Western civilization, they lost any organizing principle,” Cheney said. “If you look over history for the last 500 to 600 years, the rise of the West is the organizing principle, and the key to the rise of democratic standards.”

The 314-page “National Standards for World History: Exploring Paths to the Present” was developed at UCLA with participation by 35 national education organizations, among them the American Historical Association and the National Council for History Education.

Cheney initiated attacks on the panel last month, charging that national standards for American history published at that time ignored “great men” and events, paid too much attention to the nation's failures and overemphasized the role of women and minorities.

The world history guidelines promised to deepen the debate. Intended as a curriculum guide for children in grades five through 12, the standards divide world history into eight “eras,” from “The Beginnings of Human Society” through “The Twentieth Century.”

UCLA history Prof. Gary B. Nash, who co-directed the 2 1/2-year project, dismissed Cheney's most recent objections as the opinions of someone who “has a very frail background in history.”

“The rise of the West is one of the most important themes, once the West begins to rise,” Nash said. “In certain periods, what was more important was the reach of Islam and the reach of China.”

Although the guidelines invoke President Clinton's “Goals 2000” educational reforms for public schools, the project began in 1992 with funding from the Education Department and Cheney's NEH.

The standards are nonbinding for individual school systems, but if they are approved by a 19-member bipartisan council convened by the Education Department, they will have national stature.

The new guidelines treat Western civilization “in a very rich way,” Nash contends, in that most of the traditional benchmarks of world history are given ample treatment, among them Egyptian civilization, the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, European imperialism, the two World Wars and the Cold War.

But many Americans will find a plethora of unfamiliar themes. The early part of the guidelines draws heavily on archaeological information documenting the development of mankind itself and the rise of ancient cultures.

“Explain the development of tropical agriculture in Southeast Asia,” reads one standard for grades five and six. “What role did bamboo play as a major tool in this area?”

Nash explained that the emphasis on heretofore little-known areas of the world “is an amplification” of recent history teaching trends made possible by “stunning archaeological digs that have revealed the history of the ancient past.”

But Cheney said “there is too much that is too old,” and questioned its relevance to American students. “There's nothing wrong of course with studying the rest of the world, but not through this massive amount of detail.”

Also new, Nash said, is the amount of attention given to Asian, African and pre-Columbian history in America. The standards track civilization in China from its beginnings to the present and discuss in detail such cultures as the Olmec, in what is now tropical Mexico, the Nok, in sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia's Srivijaya kingdom.

“There's gender relations in Gupta India, and students are supposed to read John of Plano Carpini on the Mongol threat,” Cheney said of the new curriculum. “There's no sense of priorities, no sense of what's important to know.”

And when the standards do focus on Western civilization, Cheney added, they often emphasize the negative. 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.

“Well, she apparently doesn’t believe there is anything about oppression and conflict in the Renaissance,” responded Nash. “That's interesting, because it was happening everywhere else.”

Nash also denied that the standards lacked structure, noting that the guidelines illustrate each “era” with a large pie chart that describes major trends in world history for the period.

The Era 7 chart, “An Age of Revolutions, 1750-1914” is dominated by the West, with a bow to the rise of Japan and brief mentions of how Western imperialism affected peoples in the rest of the world. But in Era 4, “Expanding Zones of Exchange and Encounter 300-1000, “ Islamic civilization commands one-third of the pie and the expansion of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity another third.

“Western Christendom” gets a single mention in the last third, entitled “New Patterns of Society.” In paying such slight attention to the West, however, the new standards in this case appeared to march in lock step with traditional Western scholars, who used to call this period the Dark Ages.