Historians and the Dumbing Down of Public Discourse


Ms. Jacoby is the author of The Age of American Unreason, from which the following article is excerpted. (Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Pantheon.)

In the early 1990's, a brouhaha over an attempt to develop national standards for the teaching of history offered an exemplary and depressing demonstration of the politically motivated pigheadedness shared by many hard-line conservative and left-wing multiculturalist intellectuals. Lynne Cheney, chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities during the administration of President George H.W. Bush (and the wife of Dick Cheney), approved a grant to the National Center for History in the Schools, based at the University of California at Los Angeles, for the development of voluntary national history standards. When the standards were released in 1994, many distinguished conservative and liberal historians were appalled. The results were a fair-minded historian's nightmare, seemingly crafted by a collective composed of all of the politically correct purveyors of junk thought in academia. The Constitution itself received short shrift. Such was the level of political correctness that the guidelines continually referred to "the American peoples" -- as if that had been customary language at any point in American history and the framers had begun the Preamble with "We the Peoples ... in order to form a more perfect Union."

In the 1994 standards, the McCarthy era received much more attention than the revolutionary period and the Constitution. An angry Mrs. Cheney, who had egg on her face for having approved the grant in the first place, led the charge against the standards, criticizing them for emphasizing American shortcomings and downgrading American heroes and achievements. Politicians were even angrier, and the Senate passed a motion censuring the standards -- a strange concept in itself -- by a vote of 99 to 1. President Bill Clinton, who should have known better and probably did, jumped on the bandwagon to declare that all efforts to develop national history standards were misguided and that only the states should determine what was taught in their schools. In doing so, Clinton ignored the fact that the absence of national standards is one of the main reasons why American children know so much less about their history than European children know about the history of their native lands.

But that was not the end of the controversy, because many educators and historians realized that national curriculum standards were still a good idea even if this particular set of standards was a specimen of junk thought. The Council for Basic Education, a nonprofit foundation for the promotion of innovation in schools, brought together panels of professional historians, who decided that the standards could be rescued from the doghouse of the culture wars. The UCLA Center modified its original recommendations, based on the historians' advice, and in 1996 released a new suggested curriculum that pleased nearly everyone but the lunatic fringe of the academic far left and the hard-core right.

Diane Ravitch, an educational historian and a political conservative, and the staunchly liberal Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., collaborated on an unusual article, originally published in The Wall Street Journal, praising the new national standards and urging that the original misbegotten recommendations not stand as an obstacle to a national effort to improve the teaching of history. The article was widely circulated because it was a rare example of public intellectuals collaborating, in spite of their different political views, on an important effort attempting to address the grave shortcomings of American civic education. The authors state unequivocally:

The revised standards arrive at a critical juncture. Our children know too little about our history (or any other). In recent years, the teaching of history has been submerged in a shapeless mass of "social studies" aiming to teach children "social dynamics," "interpersonal relations," the improvement of "self-esteem," and all sorts of other non-historical considerations. We have no doubt that the American people want their children -- and the entire rising generation -- to be well informed about who we are, where our institutions came from, and how we have confronted the discrepancy between our behavior and our ideals.

Both Schlesinger and Ravitch (who, while working for the Department of Education, had, like Cheney, signed off on the original grant application) criticized the first set of standards "for their failure to balance pluribus and unum and to place the nation's democratic ideals at the center of its history."

The authors went on to praise the revised standards as "rigorous, honest, and as nearly accurate as any group of historians could make them. They do not take sides, and they pose the most fundamental questions about our nation's history." Among the changes: The term "peoples" was jettisoned; more space was devoted to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; and, as the authors noted, although "attention is rightly directed to our nation's troubled history of racial, ethnic, and religious tension, these issues are now placed within the context of the nation's ongoing quest to make our practices conform to our ideals." In addition, the new standards eliminated "references to obscure people whose main credential seemed to be that they were not dead white males." Translation: although the 1996 standards would not satisfy those who want American history to be taught as one long and unbroken record of injustice, neither would they satisfy those, like Reagan, who want children to learn a prettied-up version of history in which slavery, to cite just one example, is treated not as a central and terrible American reality but as merely one of those trifling "sad episodes in our past." The new standards were made widely available, on a voluntary basis, to school districts intent on improving the teaching of history. Unfortunately, the problem with voluntary attempts to improve academic standards is that the changes are seldom embraced by local school districts most in need of remediation.

One person who would not give the national history standards a second chance was Lynne Cheney. Mrs. Cheney became so incensed over the very phrase "national history standards" that in 2004 she used her clout as the wife of the vice president (although she no longer had an official government job) to bully the Department of Education into destroying 300,000 copies of a revised edition of a pamphlet, Helping Your Child Learn History, intended to complement the 1996 standards. The Department of Education originally claimed that the pamphlets were recalled because of "typographical errors" but eventually had to confess that it was responding to Mrs. Cheney's objections to the very mention of national standards. Mrs. Cheney is clearly one of those intellectuals who have concluded that their responsibilities are to power alone -- and to the expansion of their own power. (In her case, exercising her responsibilities led her to call upon the derivative power she possessed as her husband's wife.)

It speaks badly for intellectuals as a group that Schlesinger and Ravitch's collaboration was such a noteworthy event -- that so many prominent conservative and liberal scholars are more interested in bashing one another than in setting aside some of their disagreements in an effort to arrest the tide of ignorance that threatens the very foundations of American democracy. Too many intellectuals are simply feathering their own nests, like those who did not stand up for the core curriculum at universities in the sixties and early seventies thereby contributing to the deterioration of what used to be our common civic culture. Like the politicians so many of them are eager to serve, such intellectuals are making their own contribution to the dumbing down of public discourse.

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    More Comments:

    Kevin R Kosar - 5/28/2008

    Two quick points:

    1. Jacoby characterizes Diane Ravitch as a "political conservative." That's not quite right. Anyone who has read her work will find both both liberal and conservative aspects. (Trust me-- I've read alot of Ravitch's writings and I used to work for her. She can't be so easily pingeonholed.)

    2. Jacoby decries as "political correcteness" the use of the term "American peoples." Yes, it is a clumsy term, but I think anyone who has studied American history closely would have to admit that America does have different groups, "peoples" if you will, with very different worldviews, cultures, religious beliefs, etc. For example, compare the Orthodox Jews of Brooklyn vs. the Pennsylvania Mennonites vs. the Acadians vs. the seclar, liberal intellgentsia of San Francisco. E pluribius unum is a political goal; it's never been the enthnographical or sociological reality.


    Kevin R. Kosar

    George Shirey - 5/17/2008

    What then are the conclusions of this article? Should we have national standards?

    Being one who pays particular attention to a multitude of state standards, I can say that the chance of coalescing to one national standard will be a very difficult process.

    Historical revision and political correctness aside, different states have different points of emphasis (I believe rightly so).

    Anyway, I'd be interested to know what the author sees as solutions to the problem.

    Maarja Krusten - 5/17/2008

    You ask why historians do not colloborate on issues relating to public discourse. I've wondered about that myself, as a former employee of the National Archives' Office of Presidential Libraries. It's been my experience that historians do not come together easily on issues of public policy. The reasons seems to go beyond the political.

    I see this in looking at how little assistance the National Archives has received during the last 20 years from its customers, the people who use the records it releases (often through a painful and difficult process of working with power players such as former Presidents.) The Archives' customers are more likely to snipe at each other over their published work or to jockey for position and perceived advantage vis a vis each other than to come together to advocate for the Archives.

    You have to consider what behaviors are rewarded within a profession. Judging by the blogosphere, being an historian largely seems to be perceived as a "me" rather than a "we" profession. There seems to be a great deal of focus on individual status. There is less of that sense among public historians, some of whom work in a colloborative environment where their accomplishments depend in part on the work of others in other disciplines within their agencies and departments. But to the extent they influence public policy, they do so from within, not from outside.

    Unless historians perceive some advantage to themselves individually, I don't think you are going to persuade them to come together to grapple with issues that have no easy solutions. It just seems to be too competitive a profession and the rewarded behaviors too ingrained to allow many people to move beyond thinking about "me" to thinking about "we."

    James Draper - 5/15/2008

    Let's see Ms. Jacoby develop national standards for the teaching of history that educators, public historians, and academic historians can all embrace. This goes far beyond partisan politics and the alleged "dumbing" of America.

    By the way, I believe it is Dr. Lynne Cheney, and kudos to her for opposing these asinine attempts at political correctness and revisionism.

    John R. Maass - 5/15/2008

    Huh? Kids from other countries know more about their national history than American kids? While I agree that US kids know very little, the auther is way off on the assertion that the kids from other countries are better. Just read the Telegraph on a weekly basis to see what I mean. The last article I caught reported that 50% or so of English school children thought that Winston Churchill was fictitious!