Gary Nash: Responds to criticism by Susan Jacoby

Historians in the News

[Gary B. Nash, Director, National Center for History in the Schools.]

It is puzzling that in her description of the National History Standards controversy in 1994-96, Susan Jacoby relies on the deliberate disinformation campaign mounted at the time by right-wing cultural warriors (Historians and the Dumbing Down of Public Discourse, HNN, 12 May 2008). Having appreciated Jacoby’s book-length contribution to our understanding of American secularism, I am inclined to believe that her deeply distorted account of the standards controversy was written without actually reading the standards in U.S. and World history or perusing History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (1999), which I co-authored with Charlotte Crabtree and Ross Dunn. Instead, her account reads like a version of the fusillades of Lynne Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk more than a decade ago. Perhaps Jacoby’s account can be charged to sloppy research rather than conscioius obfuscation and misrepresentation. Nonetheless, let’s get the record straight so that HNN readers are not misled. Here are some particulars.

Jacoby avers that “many distinguished conservative and liberal historians were appalled” by the National History Standards. Here, she argues by assertion without a shred of proof. I do not know of any liberal historians who expressed such dismay (though some had suggestions for additional material or rephrasing, which was to be expected in documents of this kind) and even conservative historians with reservations were selective in their criticisms. The fact is that the standards were approved overwhelmingly by historians, as well they might, for several hundred were involved in constructing the standards and nearly every historian recognized that the standards were built on the scholarship of this generation.

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James W Loewen - 6/22/2009

The standards, like the textbooks, covered too many things, too shallowly. That was their biggest weakness. Each standard, in turn, led to multiple mini-standards, and each of them led to examples.
Another problem was their orientation toward "learning" material. For example, students are supposed to "Locate the Bering land bridge and the routes anthropologists believe were taken by Asian people migrating from Siberia and southward and eastward in the Americas..." OK, but in fact "anthropologists" (and archaeologists, linguists, etc.) still debate these matters, some holding for a boat crossing, many saying it did not happen 13,000 BP when the land bridge and ice-free corridor existed, etc., etc. So the standards don't help students learn to think about history, only to "learn" history.

Jeff Donnelly - 5/6/2009

From 1990-1994, I worked each summer with the Woodrow Wilson National Foundation's Teachers Teaching Teachers program, visiting 19 cities and conducting team workshops in each.

Once the standards had come out, our work was easier. When teachers actually read what was in the standards' documents, they were very pleased with them despite what they might have heard about the standards in the media.

Jeff Donnelly
Teacher Emeritus
Miami Country Day School