History Standards Then and Now
Sandria B. Freitag, May 1997
When the national history standards for United States and world history were published in the fall of 1994, none of the thirty-some professional groups that had contributed to their preparation-the AHA included-could have predicted the political squall they would stir up. In the ensuing months, the standards became the target of an attack which, though not broadly based, was widely publicized. Mindful that it had taken 32 months of precious collaborative work from historians, working at all levels of instruction, to produce these teachers' guidelines, the Council for Basic Education in the summer of 1995 convened a blue ribbon panel to review them, leading to a published revision. Funding from the Pew, Rockefeller, Ford, and MacArthur foundations made it possible to send copies of the new national standards to every school district in the United States.
Largely political, the tempest over the standards raged over the inclusion of the scholarship in social history that had been the pride of the profession for three decades. Critics found too much about ordinary people in them and not enough about the presidents, scientists, and generals who had previously filled the history classroom. Incorporated into school texts, the new scholarship failed the test of nostalgia. There was too much about an unfamiliar Harriet Tubman and not enough about old familiars like George Washington. Instead of presenting Thomas Jefferson in relation to James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the standards showed how to surround him with his daughters, grandchildren, slaves, hired laborers, and ordinary neighbors of Albemarle County, all because now, thanks to pathbreaking research, we now knew a great deal about these people.
Others lamented the absence of heroes, the presence of bleak episodes in the American past, and the leveling of the civilization playing field with material on the cultures of Native Americans and Africans. Critics in the U.S. Senate even got through a "sense of the day" resolution that announced that future recipients of federal funding in history "should have a decent respect for United States history's roots in western civilization."
All of this is familiar, but what is less well known is what has happened to the Standards since these heady days. Intellectually, the story is one of continued influence and politically one of devolution. Most encouraging for the future of history in the schools, the standards have become the focal point for cooperation between social studies specialists and history teachers. This is particularly gratifying because much of the steam worked up for the production of standards condensed around concerns that history would disappear from the classroom altogether as social studies claimed more and more curricular attention.
Today, the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) has become the principal promoter of the revised standards. Under the leadership of Martha Rose Laffy, NCSS's executive director, the Council now vigorously markets the standards along with Bring History Alive, the two volumes of source material for teachers that came out of the initial standards project. By this time, more than 70,000 copies of the Standards have been sold or sent to teachers, administrators, and members of the public.
At the political level, Goals 2000, the umbrella program under which history standards were developed, has faltered somewhat, and individual states have picked up the standard for standards, drawing them up with varying degrees of expertise. Educator Frank Klajda surveyed the leaders of the departments of education of 50 states and learned that by late 1995, 30 states were in the process of developing new social studies frameworks, with 28 of the 30 using the national history standards.
Not every story is a happy one, however. In some states, the process has become highly political and views of teachers and historians have not received serious consideration. In Virginia, due to political considerations, Governor George Allen dismissed the original group of professional teachers and curricular specialists and turned the task of framing history standards over to a Champion Schools Commission composed principally of laypeople. This Commission's revisions in turn elicited both local and national complaints about their fact-driven approach and conservative bias, and the standards have been revised again in ways that would please many historians.
Taken together, this succession of controversies has pushed into public consciousness the issues not only about how history is and ought to be presented in the classroom but also about the nature of historical research. Here is a challenge for all history teachers-how to explain that what we know about the past comes from the questions that have been asked about the past (that is, from ongoing research and revision). The public seems to accept-even welcome-the fact that physicists and chemists regularly revise their subjects; revisionist biology is progress, but revisionist history appears suspect. As governors and state departments of education move to adopt standards for K-12 history instruction, we should make every effort to find out about their content, but we should also seize opportunities to discuss why nostalgia is inappropriate as a guide for curricular content.
One last thought: a writer in The Weekly Standard recently (March 10, 1997) lamented the success of the National History Standards, using as his measuring rod the presence in mainstream textbooks of themes identified with the standards, especially the idea of opening the history of the nation with the "historical convergence of European, African, and Native American peoples." In fact, he reversed the order. The standards for the United States followed what was already in the latest textbooks, drawing upon recent historical scholarship.
It is interesting to reflect on what would have happened had the standards not raised the barometric pressure in that public space bounded by TV news and radio talk shows. Surely, historians with their diverse takes on the past would have had much to say about particular emphases and interpretations in the original guidelines. Even with reviews from focus groups organized by the AHA and the OAH, the standards could have been expected to elicit broad-ranging commentary. The mean-spiritedness of the attack forestalled that conversation. Maybe now that the storm has passed, we can all participate in a less freighted discussion about developing national standards and what that entails.