Yggdrasil's WN Library

The Death of History

Campus Follies Lesson Four

If you are wondering what has gone wrong with American Education, this week's lesson, and the assembled readings will give you an excellent start on understanding the problem.

This week we regress and examine a series of articles dealing with the rewriting of history texts for American High Schools. The first article is a classic from 1979 that outlines the pressures leading to a rewrite of the history text, "America! America!". Getting a history text through the state review bureaucracies is no small feat. But more harmful than the collective loss of memory that occurs in the rewriting, is the process of "dumbing down" that is wittingly and unwittingly encouraged by the state review panels.

The second is an excerpt from a 1994 article outlining the latest rewrite of "Triumph of the American Nation". The downward spiral from the late '70s continues as the authors note:

The third excerpt describes the guidelines for teaching history that have been promulgated by the State of New York.

The fourth describes the National Standards for United States History, approved by the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, a part of President Clinton's Goals 2000 Act.

The problem with teaching history is that you must produce enough data - facts about events occurring in the past - that conclusions may be drawn about why the event might have happened. In history, we are interested in why things happened the way that they did.

It is clear that the "critical thinking skills" being served up to America's high school students consist not of correlating events with motives and interests of the participants, but rather identification of the good guys and bad guys. They are served cliches.

For well over 130 years, the public schools in America were very anxious to grab at the opportunity to interpret the experience of the dominant majority to the children of that majority. American History had a bias, and that bias was to emphasize the rather unique liberal and inclusionary accomplishments of Western Civilization, and to strongly encourage the continuation of those positive general trends.

But now, curiously, the educational establishment has given up interpreting the meaning of Western Civilization to the European- American majority. Rather, history simply identifies that majority (or at the very least, the young males of that majority) as the "bad guys".

The ultimate question for all of us participating in this grand experiment is what might be the consequence of this conscious abandonment of the liberal tradition in Western Civilization. The vast majority of European-Americans have never discriminated against anyone. Most have never been in a position to do so. Thus, their everyday experience is powerfully at odds with the image of themselves presented in the modern texts. But informing them that they (or all other individuals around who look like them) are the "bad guys" is bound to cause problems.

Where do these new multiculturalists think that European- Americans will turn to learn about their own identity? Left with such a vacuum, who is going to interpret their experience for them?

All the alternative sources, including talk radio, family, church, and the many right-wing bookstores and computer bulletin boards are now utterly free from the constraints that a positive public interpretation of the meaning of Western Civilization might impose on their messages.

If you think about it, the consequence seems quite predictable.

Yggdrasil recommends that you read the following:

Sep. 5, 1979 Wall Street Journal P1 C1
Revised Texts

School History Books, Striving to Please All, Are Criticized as Bland As Market Factors Outweigh Quest for Truth, Editions Even Find Woman Pirate But Out With the Hippies


"America! America!" isn't a traditional history book. In its pages are black cowboys, woman pirates, Haight-Ashbury hippies, an Indian boy, a Chicano grandmother and a middle-aged Oriental. There's something for everybody in this two-year-old American history textbook for eighth-graders, and that's by design.

"We don't want to get complaints from any anybody;" says Landon Risteen, editorial vice president at Scott, Foresman & Co., the book's publisher. "No matter where you come from, you're going to find yourself in this book."

His concern is understandable. Scott Foresman shelled out $500,000 and four years of effort to put out "America! America!" With 20 other eighth-grade history texts battling for shares of the $7 million-a-year business, the competition is fierce. Moreover, the competition is fierce throughout the $700 million elementary and high school textbook market.

A Major Influence

But more is at stake than profits. Some 20 million students are in those grades, and their views of the world are being shaped largely by their books. A look at how these books are developed shows that they are more often reflections of a changing marketplace than chroniclers of a constant truth.

The reason is that the publishers feel they are being forced to please the parents, religious groups, political organizations, and state and local authorities, that are wielding increasing influence over textbook selections. If a book should offend any group, veterans or war protesters, smokers or nonsmokers-its chances of being a big winner are narrowed. So publishers carefully consider their presentation of minorities, treatment of Vietnam and pictures of tobacco fields, aiming to mollify as many of these groups as possible.

"There are all those people out there who will go through our books. so we have to judge what the market will accept," says Ralph Sterling, director of marketing at Houghton Mifflin Co. in Boston. "We can't afford to have a book sit on the shelf."

Deficiency of Students

That attitude. however, is condemned by many critics. "I've been teaching history to college sophomores since 1962," says Prof. Barry Karl at the University of Chicago, "and it has never been as bad as it is now. I get students who just don't know any history."

Many of his colleagues agree, and they blame it largely on the uninspiring blandness of American history textbooks. The problem, they say, is that by trying to please everyone, publishers take the edge off history, eliminating the exciting stuff that the past is made of.

"Textbooks minimize the real conflicts in history, like pretending the Civil war solved the problem of race relations in this country," says Douglas Price, a former high school history teacher and current manager of Jocundry's bookstore in East Lansing, Mich. "If the real regional and racial tensions were written about," he adds, "the textbooks wouldn't sell to all the markets."

Justin Kestenbaum, a professor of history at Michigan State University, agrees. He says, for instance, that while textbooks describe the reform movement of the 19th Century, they ignore "its ugly overtones, like the anti-Catholicism. They don't want anybody to appear in an unfavorable light."

Balking at Blandness

In Stanford, Calif., historian Thomas Bailey refuses to write for the high-school and junior-high markets because of publishers' attitudes. "If you want to sell a maximum number of books. you have to make them so bland that you don't get into the tougher issues," he says. "But you also don't tell the truth." Mr. Bailey grouses that efforts to include women and minorities make the books more ideological than intellectual. He admits that he grudgingly included 1972- presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm in one of his college books, even though "she was so unimportant that I wouldn't have normally put her in. When you write history, you should write about the main actors in the show."

Publishers argue that it isn't their place to take stands on controversial issues. Besides, they say just presenting ideas is, for some readers, tantamount to condoning them. "Authors may want to tell it like it is, but with the constraints on us, we really can't do it that way," says Dorothy Collins, an executive editor at Allyn & Bacon Inc. in Boston.

Many people also argue that the inclusion of women and minorities makes a book more historically accurate. "lt used to be that what was important was generals and presidents, and none of those was a woman" says Donald Prince, vice president in the education division of Rand McNally & Co. "But there are a lot of other people very important, and one of those might be a slave woman who kept her family alive. I'm not sure that didn't take more courage and brains than riding a horse up the Shenandoah Valley."

The emphasis on these groups is also said to have dispelled many of the stereotypes that filled history books just a few years ago. Dorothy Davidson, an associate commissioner for general education in the Texas Education Agency, recalls a book that quoted a letter written by Abigail Adams to her husband, President John Adams. "Abigail says things like, 'I hope to get the drapes up,' ' Miss Davidson says. "You know she must have had some thoughts on the administration, but the publisher instead chose to show her as a housewife at the White House, waiting for the furniture to move in."

"America! America!" with its black cowboys and female pirates reflects concerns that were uppermost in Mr. Risteen's mind when work on the project began in the early 1970's. Scott Foresman's market research had shown that the public was looking for a book with "more variety exemplifying the Pluralism of America" Mr. Risteen says, and "we were determined to have that in there."

A Group Project

It was also in the minds of the authors as they did their research for the book. Charles Mitsakos, the assistant superintendent of schools for curriculum and instruction in Andover, Mass., was researching the role of the buccaneers in the late 17th Century when he came across Zoabinda, one of a few woman pirates. "If you go through most American history texts, the women didn't exist at the time or if they did, there's no mention of them," Mr. Mitsakos says in explaining Zoabinda's importance in "America! America!"

Mr. Mitsako's enthusiasm for ethnic variety was one the things that attracted a Scott Foresman editor who traveled with the company's sales people in 1973 in search of potential authors. The idea was to come up with three or four historians and school administrators who could work with the editors on the book. "The day of the single author is past" in history textbooks, says Gordon Hjalmarson, president of Scott Foresman. "We feel a group authorship brings various strengths."

These strengths include more than the author's field of interest or his or her familiarity with American history programs. Authors are also considered for their regional popularity. A professor from Texas, for instance, may help sell the book in that big market, and a Hispanic teacher could make a book more marketable in New York City.

In the case of "America! America!," four authors were finally selected: two male university history professors, a male school administrator and a woman who had worked as a consultant to schools in curriculum development. A professor from Texas who was originally part of the group dropped out, Mr. Risteen says, because he wasn't "willing to let us run the show."

Influence of States

The influence of large states goes beyond the selection of authors, they also have a major effect on a book's content. "We are very sensitive to the markets, particularly Texas and California," Mr. Risteen says. "It wouldn't make sense to publish a book and leave out the history related to those states. He says for instance, "We made sure we didn't underplay the Texas independence."

The power of those two states is magnified by the fact that they are two of about 26 states that have state-wide "adoption committees. These committees select a certain number of books from which local school boards can choose and still receive state funds. Adoption "doesn't guarantee that the book will sell in the state, exclusion of the book guarantees that it won't. In other states such as New York, which is second to California in market size, any eighth-grade American history textbook can be considered by any school at any time. "The chief thing is that there is less competition once you get through the adoption committees," Mr. Risteen says, and that increases the chances of the book's success.

* * *

In California. "a book is almost automatically thrown out if it doesn't have ethnic balance," says James Eckman, a high school teacher who was on the textbook committee that evaluated "America America!" two years ago. Not surprisingly, "America! America!" is the biggest seller for eighth-graders in the state today. A book is also dumped in any state if its reading level is too high. Authors typically have trouble "writing down" to a young audience, and editors must often rework manuscripts.

Scott Foresman tests its books by counting the number of words in a sample section that aren't on a list of "appropriate" words and by counting the number of words in sentences. The editors then can come up with a number indicating the book's reading level. Mr. Risteen's staff took 70 samples of 100 words each to ensure that "America! America!" would be acceptable among eighth grade teachers.

That approach, which is taken by practically all publishers, is assailed by many critics. "The publishers write to such a formula that they lose sight of conveying facts in an interesting manner," says Barry Fetterolf, an editor at Random House Inc., which publishes primarily college books. "If a kid who reads on a ninth-grade level finds his parents' sex book which is on a 15th grade level, he will read it and understand it," Mr. Fetterolf says. "But they can't read a history text on a seventh-grade level because it's so boring." Still, he concedes "you have to look at it, since that's what the market asks for."

Big Seller

* * *

Significantly, one of Mr. Hicks's reasons for liking the book-- its limited listing of facts--may work against it over the next few years. The "fads" in American history textbooks change quickly, and publishers currently are seeing a swing back toward the more-traditional approaches that dominated until the late 1960s.

Mr. Risteen expects to undertake a major revision of "America! America!" in about two years, and the inclusion of more hard facts may be part of that revision. "I hope we don't get to the point where we think to be good a book has to be big and grim," says Mr. Risteen. "But I see some signs that we might be."

Mar 1, 1994 Wall Street Journal p A18
Triumph of Textbook Trendiness


A few American textbooks become legends, known familiarly by their authors' names as editions and titles change over time. Todd and Curti, which first appeared in 1950, is one such book. Under the title "Triumph of the American Nation," in the 1980s it became the largest selling high school American history book in the country.

But lately Todd and Curti has been a troubled title. In 1991 Georgia rejected the book, criticizing its "outdated approach, inattention to multiculturalism, inadequate critical thinking questions, and choppy narrative flow." Holt, Rinehart & Winston made the book over from scratch, giving it a new name, "Todd and Curti's The American Nation," and publishing it last month with a 1995 copyright.

The new Todd and Curti exemplifies disturbing trends in social studies publishing today. It is a big step backward, a case of "dumbing down" and revisionist folly in search of a larger audience. No "triumph" remains in the title, and no triumphalism exists in the text, except for the many forces in contemporary culture that seek to transform the curriculum along the fault lines of multiculturalism.

The new 1,090-page book has a streamlined four-color look. A pictorial, jazzy, broken format has replaced the stolid design of the previous volume. The core text has been cut in half, replaced by illustrations and white space. That's bad enough. But Todd and Curti's new content is more disturbing than its format. The final chapters are a medley of racial and gender themes, radical gestures and trendy global "concerns."

Liberal crusades and activism receive uncritical accolades. Two photographs of protesters in wheelchairs (and a third, captioned: "A woman with visual impairment demonstrating for civil rights.") reflect the force of pressure groups on the shape of schoolroom history. So do profiles of Native Americans Russell Means and Wilma Mankiller. The 1974 Bilingual Education Act receives prominent attention as a multicultural initiative. The 1946 Employment Act shrinks to two sentences. The saga of the postwar computer industry vanishes; the computer is presented instead as a machine that helps "make the workplace safe for people with disabilities." Recent American letters are represented by Gish Jen, Sandra Cisneros and Jessica Hagedorn.

A map entitled "A Multicultural Country" color codes the U.S. into 22 ethnic and "high diversity" areas. The results are confusing or plain wrong. Students will now learn that northwestern Nevada and central Montana are "high diversity" areas, just like Los Angeles and Miami. American blacks have been relabeled "African Americans," an unsettled designation that, like others, has become nearly universal in social studies textbooks.

* * *

We meet Murphy Brown having a baby and learn that "many Americans were abandoning the idea that marriage was necessarily a lifelong commitment." We deal with sexual harassment and homelessness, "which increased during the 1980s, partly as a result of President Reagan's economic policies." An estimated three million Americans are homeless, according to the book, four to six times the number in reputable surveys.

Todd and Curti states, "Ronald Reagan appealed to a wide range of voters disenchanted with liberal politics." It never explains the appeal or the disenchantment. "To gain support for their causes, the New Right established research centers such as the Heritage Foundation and launched direct mail campaigns" to elect Mr. Reagan, says the book, which conflates Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and voter insurgency in the 1980s.

A chapter on the environment sounds a different alarm: "One 1992 report claimed that at least 140 species were vanishing each day! Activists are campaigning to slow this process and save at least some species from extinction."

Such distortions are all the more distressing at a time when:

- The number of mass-market educational publishers continues to shrink. The recent departure of Macmillan from school publishing and the absorption of McDougal, Littell by Houghton Mifflin are the latest chapters in the depressing tale of ingestion, consolidation and lost autonomy in the field.

- History as a basic and required subject increasingly competes with social studies electives that are concerned mainly with building students' self-esteem.

- Educational publishers are tempted to retreat entirely from history, a troubled and costly area of the curriculum where little agreement on content exists and where marketing headaches abound.

The new Todd and Curti confirms the ongoing decline of a narrative core in history texts and profound changes in high school history courses. It indicates the continuing success of pressure groups that want to reconstruct the nation's official record of its past for young people.

As it happens, I spoke a while back to the co-author of the original text, Merle Curti, now a 96-year-old retired professor at the University of Wisconsin and a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. Mr. Curti said he "lost control of the book years ago." The new book is written under the signature of Paul Boyer, also a historian at the University of Wisconsin and a respected textbook author. I know several of the historians listed as "content reviewers" in the front of the text and have favorably reviewed their own works of history. I cannot believe they had anything more than the narrowest of encounters with the final product.

Mr. Sewall is director of the American Textbook Council, which reviews history texts and curricula. Most recently, he is the co- author of "After Hiroshima: The U.S.A. Since 1945" (Longman, 1993).

June 27, 1991 Wall Street Journal p A14
Biased Panel Serves Up History With a Twist


The teaching of history and social studies was again the subject of hot debate in New York state last week, thanks to a new report issued by a panel of educators.

The curriculum revisions suggested by the panel will come as no great surprise to anyone familiar with the preoccupations of the multiculturalists, whose views are the reigning orthodoxy within the nation's education establishment. The 97-page document is titled "One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Interdependence." A good many New Yorkers think it might more aptly be titled "One Ideology, Many Propagandists."

State Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol ordered up the study in response to the near universal ridicule brought down on him by a curriculum report issued two years ago--a document saturated with anti-Western hostility. The new report differs from that of the first only in its tone and moderated language.

* * *

Like the first report, this one finds that school texts reflect a heavily "Eurocentric" bias. It charges they fail to inform students that the arrival of Columbus and other Europeans was a catastrophe for the native peoples of the new world that led to "the eradication of many varieties of traditional culture and knowledge." It is a given that the enemy of justice and humanity is Western man.

One of the report's most interesting features is its additions to the vocabulary of the Politically Correct. It charges that the current curriculum is guilty of bias because it describes the desert of Africa as having a "hostile" climate but fails to say the same about Europe, which has freezing rains and snows. The fact that the snows and freezing rains of Europe are seasonal - as opposed to the permanently hostile weather of the desert - did not appear to deter the panelists.

The report decrees that the word "slave" be dropped in favor of "enslaved person." The rationale for this, as panel member Francis Roberts, superintendent of a Long Island school district, explains it, is that schoolchildren hearing the word "slave" might conclude that being a slave was your everyday occupation-- such as gardener or cook.

* * *

The multiculturalist majority included African Studies Prof. Ali Al'Amin Mazrui of the State University at Binghamton, whose scholarship has focused largely on enumerating the evils of Western civilization. Prof. Mazrui does appear hopeful, however, that imminent triumph over this evil is not far off, for, as he declared not long back: ~"The decline of Western civilization might well be at hand. It is in the interest of humanity that such a decline should take place."

Another panelist was Asa Hilliard, professor of education at Georgia State University, and a leading spokesman for multicultural education. Prof. Hilliard is a proponent of the view that most of the world's scientific and medical attainments and its greatest artistic and cultural works were the achievements of black Africans and stolen by white Europeans. He is the author of a school resource text titled "Free Your Mind: Return To the Source," which explains that many famous personages were black, among them the poet Robert Browning, the French writer Colette, and the grandmother of Queen Victoria.

Prof. Hilliard has complained that schoolchildren are always told that Europeans discovered America, but are never told that the Indians may have discovered Europe. He believes that there is "exciting documentation" to support this view. A journalist asking how the Indians could have conceivably crossed the Atlantic in their little birch canoes received the answer that "the possibility should at least be put before the children." Another panelist, Prof. Edmund Gordon of Yale, co-chairman, recently authored a work tracing the tentacles of European- American hegemony and outlining the way in which European- Americans monopolized control over all knowledge. Prof. Jorge Klor de Alva, a Princeton anthropologist believes that Americans have no common culture.

One of the dissenting panelists nicely underscored the difference between the ideologized wanderings of the panel and the values of the public for whose interests they were supposed to speak. In the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Kenneth Jackson, "The people of the United States will recognize, even if this committee does not, that every viable nation has to have a common culture to survive."

Ms. Rabinowitz is a Journal editorial writer

Oct. 26, 1994 Wall Street Journal p A26
The End of History


Imagine an outline for the teaching Of American history in which George Washington makes only a fleeting appearance and is never described as our first president. Or in which the foundings of the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women are considered noteworthy events, but the first gathering of the U.S. Congress is not.

This is, in fact, the version of history set forth in the soon-to-be-released National Standards for United States History. If these standards are approved by the National Education Standards and Improvement Council-part of the bureaucracy created by the Clinton administration's Goals 2000 Act--students across the country, from grades five to 12, may begin to learn their history according to them.

The document setting forth the National Standards divides American history into 10 eras and establishes two to four standards for each era, for a total of 31. Each "standard" states briefly, and in general terms, what students should learn for a particular period (e.g., "Early European Exploration and Colonization: The Resulting Cultural and Ecological Interaction"). Each standard is followed, in the document, by lengthy teaching recommendations (e.g., students should "construct a dialogue between an Indian leader and George Washington at the end of the [Revolutionary] war").

Paradoxical Constitution

The general drift of the document becomes apparent when one realizes that not a single one of the 31 standards mentions the Constitution. True, it does come up in the 250 pages of supporting materials. It is even described as "the culmination of the most creative era of constitutionalism in American history"-- but only in the dependent clause of a sentence that has as its main point that students should "ponder the paradox that the Constitution sidetracked the movement to abolish slavery that had taken rise in the revolutionary era."

The authors tend to save their unqualified admiration for people, places and events that are politically correct. The first era, "Three Worlds Meet (Beginnings to 1620)," covers societies in the Americas, Western Europe and West Africa that began to interact significantly after 1450. To understand West Africa, students are encouraged to "analyze the achievements and grandeur of Mansa Musa's court, and the social customs and wealth of the kingdom of Mali."

Such celebratory prose is rare when the document gets to American history itself. In the U.S. context, the kind of wealth that Mansa Musa commanded is not considered a good thing. When the subject of John D. Rockefeller comes up. students are instructed to conduct a trial in which he is accused of "knowingly and willfully participat[ing] in unethical and amoral business practices designed to undermine traditions of fair open competition for personal and private aggrandizement in direct violation of the common welfare."

African and Native American societies like all societies, had their failings, but one would hardly know it from National Standards. Students are encouraged to consider Aztec "architecture, skills, labor systems, and agriculture." But not the practice of human sacrifice.

Counting how many times different subjects are mentioned in the document yields telling results. One of the most often mentioned subjects, with 19 references is McCarthy and McCarthyism. The Ku Klux Klan gets its fair share, too, with 17. As for individuals, Harriet Tubman, an African-American who helped rescue slaves by way of the underground railroad, is mentioned six times. Two white males who were contemporaries of Tubman, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, get one and zero mentions, respectively. Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk and the Wright brothers make no appearance at all.

* * *

The National Standards, by contrast, concentrates on "multiple perspectives" and on how the American Revolution did or did not serve the "interests" of different groups.

* * *

The National Standards, which mentions Clay once and Webster not at all, gives no hint of their spellbinding oratory. It does, however, suggest that students analyze Pat Buchanan's speech at the 1992 Republican convention. The only congressional leader I could find actually quoted in the document was Tip O'Neill, calling Ronald Reagan "a cheerleader for selfishness."

What went wrong? One member of the National Council for History Standards (the group that oversaw the drafting of the standards) says that the 1992 presidential election unleashed the forces of political correctness. According to this person, who wishes not to be named, those who were "pursuing the revisionist agenda" no longer bothered to conceal their "great hatred for traditional history." Various political groups, such as African-American organizations and Native American groups, also complained about what they saw as omissions and distortions. As a result, says the council member, "nobody dared to cut the inclusive part," and what got left out was traditional history.

The standards for world history are also soon to be made public. By all accounts, the sessions leading to their development were even more contentious than those that produced U.S. standards. The main battle was over the emphasis that would be given to Western civilization, says a second council member. After the 1992 election, this member reports, the American Historical Association, an academic organization, became particularly aggressive in its opposition to "privileging" the West. The AHA threatened to boycott the proceedings if Western civilization was given any emphasis. From that point on, says the second council member, "the AHA hijacked standards-setting." Several council members fervently protested the diminution of the West, "but," says the second council member, "we were all iced-out."

Official Knowledge

UCLA's Center for History suggests that its document on standards be viewed UCLA's Center for History suggests that its document on standards be viewed as a work in progress rather than a definitive statement. But there is every reason to believe that the certification process put in place by the Clinton administration will lead to the adoption of the proposed standards more or less intact-as official knowledge-with the result that much that is significant in our past will begin to disappear from our schools.

Preventing certification will be a formidable task. Those wishing to do so will have to go up against an academic establishment that revels in the kind of politicized history that characterizes much of the National Standards. But the battle is worth taking on. We are a better people than the National Standards indicate, and our children deserve to know it.

Mrs. Cheney, who was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from May 1986 to January 1993, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.


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