The History Place - Points of View

Politics in the Classroom

by Lynne Cheney

Excerpted from her book:
Telling the Truth: Why our culture and our country have stopped making sense--and what we can do about it.

The National History Standards developed at the University of California at Los Angeles and released in the fall of 1994 are the most egregious example to date of encouraging students to take a benign view of -- or totally overlook -- the failings of other cultures while being hypercritical of the one in which they live. Published in two volumes -- one for U.S. history and one for world history -- and intended for schools across the nation, the standards suggest that students consider the architecture, labor systems, and agriculture of the Aztecs -- but not their practice of human sacrifice. The gathering of wealth, presented as an admirable activity when an African king, Mansa Musa, undertakes it, is presented as cause for outrage when it occurs in the American context. One suggested student activity is to "conduct a trial of John D. Rockefeller on the following charge: 'The plaintiff [sic] had knowingly and willfully participated in unethical and amoral business practices designed to undermine traditions of fair and open competition for personal and private aggrandizement in direct violation of the common welfare.'"

Although the standards for U.S. history neglect to mention that George Washington was our first president or that James Madison was the father of the Constitution, they do manage to include a great deal about the Ku Klux Klan (which appears seventeen times in the document), Senator Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism (cited nineteen times), and the Great Depression (cited twenty-five times). The U.S. standards also pay little attention to scientific and technological achievement. Among the figures not discussed are Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, and Neil Armstrong (or any astronaut). The exquisite consciousness of race and gender that characterizes the standards may have contributed to the omission of this group (its members are all white males), but it is also the case that science and technology are now held in extremely low regard in certain parts of the academy. Feminists argue that science represents destructive male thinking. Why not call Newton's Principia Newton's "'rape manual"? asks one. Both feminists and environmentalists argue that because of the high value that science places on objectivity and rationality, it is now in deep and deserved crisis -- information that tends to come as a surprise to practicing scientists. Did the authors of the U.S. standards decide that in the case of a field so disdained by so many of their colleagues, the less said the better? Whatever the motive, to overlook American accomplishment in science and technology is to omit some of our most dazzling achievements.

The World History Standards do mention Edison and Einstein; and while there is heavy emphasis on the role that technological advancement has had in increasing the brutality of war, there is also some recognition that science has played a role in improving quality of life -- though it is usually coupled with a reminder that not everyone has benefited equally. Students are asked, for example, to assess "why scientific, technological, and medical advances have improved living standards for many but have failed to eradicate hunger, poverty, and epidemic disease."

In the World History Standards, the fact that women generally had different roles from men in the ancient world is seen simply as a matter of gender "differentiation" -- until it happens in Athens, the birthplace of Western civilization. Then it becomes a matter of' "restrictions on the rights and freedoms of women." Just as sexism is first introduced in the context of Greek civilization, so, too, is ethnocentrism -- as though in previous cultures in Asia and Africa, people had never considered their ethnic group superior. Nowhere is it mentioned that it was, in fact, in Western civilization that the unjust treatment of women and minorities was first condemned and curiosity about other cultures first encouraged.

In one of the sillier sections of the World History Standards -- and one of the most quintessentially politically correct -- students are asked to read a book about Michelangelo, not in order to discuss art, but so that they can "discuss social oppression and conflict in Europe during the Renaissance." In what may be the most irresponsible section of the World History Standards, fifth- and sixth-graders are asked to read a book about a Japanese girl of their age who died a painful death as a result of radiation from the atomic weapon dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. No mention is made of why American leaders decided to use atomic weapons, about the casualties they believed an invasion of Japan would have entailed, for example. No mention is made of death and suffering caused by the Japanese. The rape of Nanking is not discussed, nor is Pearl Harbor, nor the Bataan death march. What fifth- and sixth-graders would be likely to conclude is that their country was guilty of a horrible -- and completely unjustified -- act of cruelty against innocents.

In the World History Standards, as in those for the United States, the Cold War is presented as a deadly competition between two equally culpable superpowers, each bent on world domination. Ignored is the most salient fact: that the struggle was between the communist totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and the freedom offered by the United States, on the other. One might almost conclude from reading the standards that it would have made very little difference in terms of human freedom how the Cold War ended.

It is sometimes said that the negative slant to what we are teaching now is overreaction to a too positive slant in the past, and it is true that in the past we sometimes presented celebratory history in our schools. But this explanation is of no help to students who were not around when prideful, positive stories were told, and who, day after day, are presented a drearily distorted picture of the society in which they live. Nor is this explanation complete. For those intent on political and social transformation, a bleak version of history is better than a balanced one. The grimmer the picture, the more heavily underscored is the need for the reforms they have in mind.

In recent years, some activists have been remarkably frank about the political goals they have for education. Betty Jean Craige of the University of Georgia argues that "multiculturalism" has the happy "potential for ideologically disuniting the nation." As American students learn more about the faults of this country and about the virtues of other nations, she writes, they will be less and less likely to think this country deserves their special support. They will not respond to calls to use American force, and thus we will be delivered from the dark days of the early 1990s, when President George Bush was able to unify the nation in support of war against Iraq, and be able to return to the golden days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when no president was able to build support for Vietnam. Writes Craige:

Multicultural education may well be incompatible with patriotism, if patriotism means belief in the nation's superiority over other nations.... The advantage to the nation of multicultural education thus may be increased reluctance to wage all-out war.

Classicist Martha Nussbaum has also made a case against patriotism, calling education that encourages it "morally dangerous." Writes Nussbaum, "To give support to nationalist sentiments subverts, ultimately, even the values that hold a nation together, because it substitutes a colorful idol for the substantive universal values of justice and right." A central confusion in Nussbaum's argument, and in Craige's, is that neither considers the ways in which the American system has uniquely nurtured justice and right. The idea enunciated in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal has, for example, been a driving force behind the changes we have made to achieve a greater degree of equality than exists anywhere in the world for women -- and for racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. The principles of freedom and liberty that have inspired our political system have also informed our economic arrangements and made the United States a beacon of opportunity to people everywhere. If we do not teach our children these things, they may well conclude, as Craige wishes, that this nation deserves no special support. They might well become "cosmopolitan," as Nussbaum prefers. But we will have accomplished these ends at the cost of truth -- a truth, moreover, that calls into question the wisdom of the political goals that Craige and Nussbaum advance. Why deny special support to a nation that has become a political and economic lodestar to people around the world?

One of Nussbaum's concerns seems to be that our schools will foster arrogance and self-righteousness, that they will encourage the view that "Americans as such are worthy of special respect." And, adds Nussbaum, "that, I think, is a story that Americans have told for far too long." But no one is suggesting that we hide our flaws or neglect the achievements of others. The point is to give students as accurate an accounting of the past as we can; and when we neglect our accomplishments and emphasize our failings, while doing exactly the opposite for other cultures, it is not the cause of truth that is being advanced.

The fact that the history of the United States and Western civilization is so often presented in a negative light has spawned an occasional backlash. In 1994, the school board in Lake County, Florida, complied with state directives to teach multiculturalism with the following caveat:

This instruction shall also include and instill in our students an appreciation of our American heritage and culture such as: our republican form of government, capitalism, a free enterprise system, patriotism, strong family values, freedom of religion and other basic values that are superior to other foreign or historic cultures.

The school board was denounced and derided for its action, largely by people and groups focusing on the phrase "superior to other foreign or historic cultures." A University of Central Florida professor called the policy "close to racism." The Lake County Education Association maintained that the board's action violated the state's multicultural education law. In the face of this criticism, one of the members who had voted for the statement resigned; and when a subsequent election further changed the composition of the board, the statement was repealed. But the original board action made an important point. There are, to be sure, many ways in which we are not superior to other cultures. We have produced "no Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, or Bach," as columnist Richard Cohen noted in connection with the Lake County decision. Nonetheless, there are also many ways in which we are the light of the world; and one of them is that we have created a single nation out of people from every part of the world. We have created one from many and should celebrate the spirit that has enabled us to do so. Richard Cohen's description is apt:

The true glory of American culture is its eclectic nature-its plasticity, the wonderful adaptability that not only has produced ham and Swiss on croissants but, more important, the throat-catching letters of immigrants to their relatives back home. So many of these people were simply stunned by the hearty openness of American society, its willingness to accept them as individuals, not as tribal representatives. This emphasis on the individual is very American. It can be overdone, but overall it's wonderful.

American students should learn where we as a nation have fallen short. But if they are to have a true understanding of past and present, it is crucial that they also know about what we have done well--very well, indeed.

Copyright © 1995 Lynne V. Cheney All Rights Reserved

Lynne V. Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, was the W.H. Brady, Jr., Distinguished Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 through 1992. She has a Ph.D. in English, has taught at several colleges and universities, and was a senior editor at Washingtonian magazine. She is the author of several books and formerly co-hosted the Crossfire TV show on CNN.

Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense - And What We Can Do About It by Lynne Cheney - The former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities sounds an impassioned alarm against the attack on objective truth that is undermining all of society - from what our kids are taught in school to the values that hold families together Purchase from

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