WASHINGTON, August 23, 2014 — Much has already been said about the guidelines that should be applied to teaching high school history. In 1994 the public was treated to a debate between former National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) director Lynne Cheney and retired UCLA professor Gary B. Nash, coauthor of history guidelines that had already been adopted by a number of states.
I generally agree with Cheney’s critical points. But, having looked at Nash’s guidelines out of curiosity, I found myself gasping at their persistently PC character.
My niece and my grandson had to sit through history classes that featured Nash’s highlights of the American past, and they came home asking whether Harriet B. Tubman was a more important figure in American history than all our great inventors. McCarthyism, my family members were made to believe, plunged the U.S. into a dark night of Nazi-like repression, a terror from which we’ve still not fully recovered.
Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee are hardly mentioned in these guidelines, except as defenders of slavery, and the Abolitionist firebrand Thaddeus Stevens is elevated to the role of America’s moral savior. The fact, as Nash bragged in his response to Cheney, that several states adopted his guidelines is grim news indeed. It means that kids all over the country are being made to sit through the same bilge being served up by certified members of the NEA.
But there is a larger question than whether Nash’s guidelines should be accorded national honor or whether Cheney has a better plan that’s ready to take their place. That more significant question is whether objective “history”− something more than a mere hymn to American greatness or a self-defeating exercise in America-bashing − can still be taught today at the high school level. It’s not really clear at this point that it can.
In the late 1950s, when I studied American history in a Connecticut high school, we were provided with lots of facts. All of them turned out to be true. Although they may not have been conveyed in a value-neutral fashion (if that is even feasible in the teaching of history), some attempt was made by the instructors to keep private judgments and partisan politics out of the instruction.
Only once did my teacher, an Irish Catholic and in all likelihood a Democrat, reveal her political sympathies when she made a mildly critical comment about my hero, President Eisenhower. At no other time did I catch her saying anything that revealed her political colors. What she taught, chronologically arranged historical facts, continues to be pedagogically indispensable.
Most students I encountered in college classes, particularly during the last ten years of my teaching career, had no idea of what has happened in the world, even in recent past. They had taken something called “social studies” in high school and came out of this experience with little more than a miscellaneous arsenal of politically corret platitudes.
Likewise, although these adolescents would not admit to knowing anything about Christianity, they were happy to announce that “Islam is a religion of peace.” Students in Western Civilization could reel off the Five Pillars of Islam, but when asked to explain what exactly the “Haj” is, they would shrug their shoulders. They had been given a few carefully selected facts but nothing very substantial. During the bulk of their classroom time, they had apparently been hammered with multicultural tags and slogans.
It’s not clear that a return to what was once routinely taught in American history is still possible. Public education has become too politicized, particularly with the rise of the multicultural left. Moreover, public sector unions, to which teachers and administrators now overwhelmingly belong, have become vehicles for transmitting a culturally and socially leftist agenda.
Meanwhile, the reaction to leftist history guidelines has led the respectable right to sanctify what I can easily recognize as the mainstream historical judgments of the 1950s. And it is no mystery why this is the case. The political-cultural spectrum has swung decidedly to the left over the past several decades. What was once considered the Cold war liberal perspective of an Arthur Schlesinger, William Leuchtenberg, or Eric Goldman has reemerged as the conservative alternative to what the Left wants us to believe about the American past.
Although the older liberal view seems more honest than what the Left is now inculcating, and while it is not frenetically anti-American, there are historical questions that adherents of that view will not treat as worthy of serious debate. These questions would include the arguable constitutional right of Southern states to secede in 186l, the problematic nature of American involvement in World War One, or the seamy side of Reconstruction.
Whether a teacher adopted guidelines that would be acceptable to the Wall Street Journal or those that would please the followers of Howard Zinn and Michael Moore, it’s not clear in either case one would be moving beyond teaching history as political indoctrination. As a former student of mine who is now the author of many books in military history points out, traveling from the current leftist obsessions to a triumphalist narrative celebrating the American present may be moving from insanity to sanity, but not necessarily toward a dispassionate examination of the past. History instruction in public schools is unlikely to stop being used as a political football.
Complicating the matter is the need felt by many non-leftist historians to produce counter-narratives to what the other side has used public education and the mass media to propagate. I make this point in a non-accusatory way, since I myself have often been the author of such counter-narratives, although never of the type that the conservative establishment has chosen to feature.
But it is hard for scholars not to speak out against what they perceive as distortions, even if the price they pay is to become perpetual polemicists in a war against educational and academic elites. The politicization of my discipline has given rise to polemics on the other side. This, in turn, has led away from the study of history itself or “mere” factual instruction and toward a struggle for control over official narratives; that is, those authorized accounts of the past that are to be taught in schools.
What’s preferable is a situation in which we could generally agree on what is to be presented to the young as “the past.” Equally preferable would be a political environment where Democrats and Republicans or the advocates of present-day America and its leftist detractors would not be struggling to mold the young with partisan narratives.
Perhaps I am not being totally forthcoming. As a surviving member of the Old Right, I would like my counter-narrative to be the official one. But this is not likely to happen. In any case, as a practicing historian, I should not wish to see anyone’s form of indoctrination inflicted on the rest of society as historical truth.
Perhaps there is no realistic way out of this partisan morass. If so, I would not protest too loudly if the study of American history ceased to be taught, to whatever extent it still is taught, in American public schools. As a concession from the other side, I would ask that social studies and other forms of leftist brain-washing be eliminated from the high school curriculum.
Although I doubt anyone would seriously entertain this offer, particularly given its admittedly reactionary source, it is certainly worth considering. The extra time that would be gained by making these cuts could be spent on the teaching of mathematics and English. grammar.