The Reason Lynne Cheney Had 300,000 History Booklets Destroyed


Mr. Rees is Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo. He is the author of MANAGING THE MILLS: LABOR POLICY IN THE AMERICAN STEEL INDUSTRY DURING THE NONUNION ERA (University Press of America, 2004) and co-editor of THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE: PRIMARY SOURCES ON THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN LABOR, INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS AND WORKING-CLASS CULTURE (Harlan Davidson, 2004).

"Imagine that you wake up one morning to find out you have no memory!" Coming from an administration that wants Americans to forget its original rationale for going to war in Iraq or that President Bush ever met former Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay, you might think that this is more a wish than a suggestion. In fact, it's the beginning of a newly revised pamphlet from the Department of Education entitled "Helping Your Child Learn History."

Like other aspects of recent history that the Bush administration wants the public to forget, Vice President Cheney's wife Lynne has gotten the government to stuff this booklet down the memory-hole. According to theLos Angeles Times, the Department of Education destroyed more than 300,000 copies of this pamphlet after Cheney's office complained that it mentioned the National Standards for United States History, a controversial set of teaching guidelines developed ten years ago at UCLA. However, a version of the booklet with these references expunged is available at the Department of Education's homepage.

As is the case with so much of today's politics, a little history lesson is in order. Lynne Cheney was the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities during the administration of George H.W. Bush. In that capacity she actually championed the creation of national standards for teaching history, and helped fund this project.

However, after the release of the final version of the standards, Cheney changed her mind. As the Times explains, at that time she argued "that the standards were not positive enough about America's achievements and paid too little attention to figures such as Gen. Robert E. Lee, Paul Revere and Thomas Edison. At one point in the initial controversy, Cheney denounced the standards as 'politicized history.' "

The Times goes on to explain that even though Mrs. Cheney's office helped in the development of the booklet, Education Department staff added references to the standards after her office had reviewed an initial draft.

The cost of the junked booklets, $110,360, is certainly one reason to be disturbed by this decision. And, of course, the failure to include any mention of the standards in the new version of the booklet is undoubtedly an act of political censorship. (References to many of Mrs. Cheney's works on history education remain in the guide.)

Nevertheless, if anything good is good to come out of this story, it ought to be increased attention for an excellent piece of instructional literature. In fact, the insights contained in "Helping Your Child Learn History" are more than enough to construct a counterargument to Mrs. Cheney's positions, both ten years ago and today.

For example, the Times recalls that during the initial controversy, Cheney pointed out that "The standards contained repeated references to the Ku Klux Klan and to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the anti-Communist demagogue of the 1950s . . . And she noted that Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who helped run the Underground Railroad, was mentioned six times."

As if in response to this line of reasoning, the authors of the booklet write, "The history with which we are most familiar is political history--the story of war and peace, important leaders and changes of government. But history is more than that. Anything that has a past has a history, including ideas, such as the idea of freedom, and cultural activities, such as music, art or architecture."

Why then did Cheney count specific references to historical figures in the standards? Because she and her conservative allies were more concerned about what students learned rather than whether they learned history at all. On the other hand, the booklet suggests that "In-depth study of a few important events gives [children] a chance to understand the many sides of a story."

In fact, "Helping Your Child Learn History" is remarkably sophisticated in the way that it encourages parents (and by extension their children) to assess the validity of particular sources. The pamphlet explains that "There are many possible stories about the same event, and there are good storytellers and less good storytellers. Very rarely does one story say it all or any one storyteller 'get it right.' " If only the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth could understand this concept!

The issue of multiple points of view gets to the very heart of Cheney's opposition to the national history standards. As Harvey Kaye explained in 1995, the standards were "truly reflective of contemporary historical scholarship and practice--and, presumably, for conservatives that is the problem. Indeed, the standards produced for American history should rile conservatives quite a bit given their intense hostility to the critical historiographies crafted since the 1960s." Limiting access to the standards, therefore, not only harms the ability of students to make analytical judgments, it makes it harder for them to read points of view with which Cheney disagrees.

At the time the standards were first produced, conservative icon Rush Limbaugh declared, "History is real simple. You know what history is? It's what happened." Historians should welcome "Helping Your Child Learn History" because it serves as counterweight to this common misconception. It recognizes that history is complex, and it encourages parents to teach their children to think analytically about history from an early age. The more parents who read this booklet and follow its advice, the easier our jobs will be when they reach college.

So let's hope the next wife of the next vice president of the United States allows the Department of Education to do its job.

Related Links

  • Michael Bérubé: 1997 Review of Lynne Cheney’s Attack on the National History Standards (Nation)

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    More Comments:

    Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

    Mr. Rees suffers from a failure to really understand the issues here. I'll relate this to religious indoctrination.

    Children should be indoctrinated by rote in a religious tradition. This is essential to the development of proper respect for authority, ritual, etc. At the age of 16 or so, children should then be free to make their own decisions about whether or not to follow that religious tradition.

    Likewise, school children should be indoctrinated in a positive view of their society, history and culture. A foundation of pride, citizenship, respect for authority and obligation should first be built. A "critical" education should be available for those who want it, probably beginning in the Freshman year of college.

    Mr. Rees does not seem to understand the developmental needs of children. First, they need a foundation of standards, ritual, obligation and obedience. They should be raised to understand and obey the dictates of their native culture and religion. The ability and the need to criticize arrives later.

    If you begin by educating a child in "critical thinking," you are simply making an error in dealing with the formative development of that child. And, in addition, you are abandoning your responsibility to clearly and consciouly do your duty as an authority figure in that child's life.

    Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

    I have addressed the issue of what is best for the development of the child, and how that child can be given a solid foundation of standards and respect for authority.

    You both have responded with political issues that are dear to your heart, and which you feel must be solved.

    Good for you. Adults should be debating how to fix social and political problems. It's part of the landscape of intellectual life.

    That just doesn't really have anything to do with the developmental needs of a child. The elementary school system and families should be, and almost always are, interested in what's best for the developmental needs of the child.

    Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

    I guess that's the answer.

    I think you are just too impatient for the process of "critical" thinking to begin.

    Most Asians raise their children precisely as I've described. The results are obvious... superior academic achievement, strong family relationships, success in love and marriage, and financial success. If you think about this, perhaps you will see how my solution prepares children for adult participation in businesses or public service.

    The assumption behind this method of child rearing is that the child should serve an apprenticeship, usually to the age of 13 to 16, during which the child is obligated to learn the rules and to obey adult authority.

    There is plenty of time after this for "critical" thinking, by which I think you mean questioning the rules and questioning the obligation to obey adult authority.

    Jesse David Lamovsky - 10/21/2004

    Brainwashed, Mr. Moshe? Really? Who is being brainwashed?

    Do you honestly think there are public schools out there that don’t teach about slavery?

    Do you honestly think there are public schools out there that teach Christianity as “the only road to heaven”?

    Students who are intelligent and inquisitive don't need to be spoon-fed critical thinking, and the students who aren't intelligent or inquisitive, quite frankly, aren't worth the effort. Give students the facts, and if they are interested in learning more, they should seek out alternative sources and alternative views on their own. My concern is that when educators facilitate critical thinking, it often turns out to be a form of indoctrination, based on strawman assertions, based on nothing, that schools are "brainwashing" students and "lying" to them about things like racism. Some of the posters here seem to think that kids would be slack-jawed and ignorant if they didn't have public school teachers around to knock the scales from their eyes. I don't share that viewpoint.

    Besides, I'm not a parent, but if I were, I'd want to be the one teaching my child critical thinking skills. I wouldn't want some government bureaucrat, who may have a completely different political ethos than mine, doing it for me.

    Graham Hick - 10/21/2004

    I am, however, incapable of spelling "conscious". :D

    Graham Hick - 10/21/2004

    I totally disagree with Mr. Thomas but would like to only focus on one point. Making critical analysis unavailable until college is counter productive to creating responsible citizens and encouraging younger voters. In my high school (a private boarding school) American History class one of our textbooks was A People's History Of The United States by Howard Zinn. This helped open my eyes to the reality of history and the effect of American policies here and around the world. Thanks to this early influence I am a well informed and politically aware citizen. An adult who makes concious choices over who I'm voting for. I've taken my right to vote very seriously and have exercised it at every opportunity since I was 18. I was well prepared BEFORE I was able to vote.

    One thing about that class. While I may have grown into a liberal minded independent, one of my former classmates has grown into a conservative Republican hardliner. We both were presented the same facts and questions and we both found our own answers. He works in politics and I teach in college.

    What I think Mr. Thomas and Mrs. Cheney are afraid of are young people asking uncomfortable questions when they should remain silent and well behaved. That's the antithesis of what our founders stood for.

    Val Jobson - 10/20/2004

    If a 16 year oldis not already thinking critically, he or she is brain-dead. Possibly Asian children learn not to voice doubts and criticism, but that does not necessarily mean they believe everything they are told.

    Very young children ask questions; they should be encouraged to find the answers for themselves, and not be spoon-fed pre-digested pap.

    Lisa Kazmier - 10/20/2004

    You may; I don't. He justifies lying to kids in whitewashing history. Doesn't this breed rebellion when at least some of these kids figure out how they were disrespect by being spoonfed lies?

    How would an African-American child respect authority that denies a past he easily can learn from his parents? Sounds very misguided to expect such a thing.

    Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 10/19/2004

    Mr. Thomas,
    I respect your position, although I disagree with it strongly. My questions are targeted directly at your recommendations and were asking about the benefits to the child once they grow up.

    I simply do not see how your solution would prepare children for adult participation in businesses or public service.

    Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 10/19/2004

    Mr. Thomas,
    Under your suggestion, how could a 16 year old possibly think critically and intelligently about something haveing been totally brainwashed in his youth.

    How will they understand race-relations since they had no knowledge of slavery?

    How will they understand the rest of the world- to say nothing of the United States- when they have been raised believing that Christianity is the only road to heaven?

    How will they prosper in an increasingly globalized economy when their view of the United States is so ethnocentric and skewed, they have no real understanding of the rest of the world, other than the belief that everyone wants to live here?

    chris l pettit - 10/19/2004

    I guess now we know...

    Indoctrination, brainwashing, and the inability to think for oneself or use your capacity to learn and reason.

    Somehow, I am not surprised, given all the drivel that you have spewn across this website...

    Apparently you have no grasp on psychology whatsoever either, for the only quacks that you will get to agree with you on your statement cannot be considered true psychologists or behavioralists in any sense of the term.


    Michael Harrington Weems - 10/18/2004

    The same thing happens on the hill, where generally agreed upon bills have unpalatable amendments tacked on by a party in order to kill the larger document. It seems a bit of a reach though to assume Ms. Cheney nix'ed these pamphlets to keep blinders on our students. If they were published, they serve as a precedent establishing the standards as Federally backed.

    However, I agree that encouraging all people to understand that truth sometimes depends on where you stand. Education is the answer and I hope they publish a revised edition in order to not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    Excellent article.