Historian Gary Nash, Who Fought to Update History Teaching, Dies at 88Historians in the News
tags: obituaries, curriculum, culture wars, teaching history, Gary Nash
Gary B. Nash, a historian who became a reluctant national celebrity in the mid-1990s when his work on a set of national history standards made him a target for Rush Limbaugh, Lynne Cheney and other prominent conservatives, died on July 29 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 88.
His wife, Cynthia Shelton, said the cause was colon cancer.
Dr. Nash had already retired from his position as a highly regarded scholar of early American history at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1994 when his university-backed organization, the National Center for History in the Schools, released a draft of its “National Standards for United States History,” a guide for elementary and high school teachers.
Drawing on the latest academic scholarship, he and his team urged teachers to move beyond the rote memorization of dates and famous names. The standards de-emphasized the conventional “great man” approach to history, Dr. Nash told The Chicago Tribune in 1994, in favor of giving students “a slightly different view of themselves as history makers, even if they are not going to become senators or presidents of a corporation.”
Though the project originated in the administration of George H.W. Bush, it immediately drew fire from conservatives. On his television show, Mr. Limbaugh said that the 271-page report should be “flushed down the toilet,” underlining his point by tearing pages out of a history book. Other commentators called Dr. Nash and his team “Nazis” and “history thieves.”
The guidelines came with examples of lessons and classroom activities, many of which, critics said, revealed the authors’ left-leaning bias — for example, they suggested a mock trial to decide whether John D. Rockefeller had used illegal means to amass his millions.
The most pointed attack came from Ms. Cheney, who in 1991, as the chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, had provided about half the funding for Dr. Nash’s project. (The Department of Education provided the rest.) She later said she deeply regretted her decision.
“Imagine an outline for the teaching of American history in which George Washington makes only a fleeting appearance and is never described as our first president,” she wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 1994. “The authors tend to save their unqualified admiration for people, places and events that are politically correct.”
Dr. Nash took pains to emphasize the collaborative nature of the project, which relied on contributions from hundreds of teachers and professors, regardless of their political bent. But it was to no avail: He became the singular target of conservative wrath, and he spent months rising before dawn in Los Angeles to defend his efforts on morning talk shows broadcast from the East Coast.
The standards were just one front in the “history wars” that raged throughout the late 1980s and early ’90s. Other battles surrounded the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Western Hemisphere and a 1994 exhibition at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum about the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan in World War II.
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