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Culture Wars

The GOP’s version of American history is ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’

Culture Wars

Fighting history

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America’s children are being taught the “propaganda of an anti-Western ideology,” warns Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, “their minds . . . poisoned against their Judeo-Christian heritage, against America’s heroes and American history, against the values of faith, family and country.” Buchanan, like so many conservatives, is furious about the recent release of a set of voluntary curricula guidelines for teachers and textbook authors called “National Standards for United States History.” Sen. Bob Dole, speaking before the American Legion Convention in Indianapolis last month, called them part of the government’s “war on traditional American values.” Newt Gingrich said the curricula were “beyond the pale.” Republican Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington labeled the standards a “perverse document” and persuaded his colleagues to condemn them by a vote of 99 to 1. Former National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) chief Lynne Cheney hates the standards so much, she even asked Congress to “kill my old agency, please.”

With the Republican presidential race heating up, what Buchanan calls “the war for the soul of America” has started to draw blood. Dole and conservative guru William Bennett have Hollywood and the rap-music industry on the defensive over the unpleasant realities depicted on film and in song lyrics. The House has already voted to zero out the National Endowment for the Arts by 1997, and the House Appropriations Committee wants to cut the NEA’s budget next year by 40 percent. With massive cuts planned for America’s tiny $620 million culture budget – not even enough to pay for a new B-2 bomber – Congress may very well cut off all federal funding for the arts and humanities. And now the right is trying to wrest control of just what American teenagers should be taught about their nation’s history.

The conservatives’ real enemy is multiculturalism in all its forms. Gary Nash, the UCLA historian who headed up the standards project, says, “There is tremendous conservative fear because the monopoly has been broken and property in history is being redistributed. What passed in the past as official history was much to the advantage of certain Americans, and now they can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” Indeed, Gingrich honestly feels that young people should be taught to believe in an America that resembles “the Norman Rockwell paintings of the 1940s and 1950s.” Partisans of the ’60s counterculture have, according to Bennett, “Marxized, feminized, deconstructed and politicized” America’s public culture. Conservatives want their story back. Emboldened by their 1994 election victory, they are aiming their fire at anyone who seeks to tell it differently.

History teachers in public schools found themselves in the crossfire of culture warfare even before the standards came into being. According to People for the American Way, one school board in Lake County, Fla., ruled that its students had to be taught that American values were “superior to other foreign or historic cultures.” Another Florida school district faced objections to teaching about the Holocaust. Opponents were concerned that the bill might open the way for tolerance training and, hence, the acceptance of homosexuality.

The attack on the new history curricula has as much to do with the decades-long nationwide right-wing jihad against art and public culture as it does with the standards. Cheney consistently manages, when discussing the history standards, to bring up the NEA’s funding of “artists who submerge a crucifix in urine and hang out in morgues” as if the two were somehow of a piece. (Artist Andres Serrano, who created Piss Christ, received $15,000 in NEA funds as an award from the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts; Joel-Peter Witkin, who once received an NEA grant, has photographed decapitated bodies in morgues.)

Conservatives have always been suspicious of federal participation in cultural and educational issues. But when the right-wingers had control of the purse strings, they managed to keep their objections pretty quiet. Just three years ago, then chairwoman Cheney said of her NEH co-workers, “No federal agency, to my mind, has so many capable professionals so thoroughly dedicated to the idea of excellence.” Bennett, plucked from obscurity by neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol, rose from being a college professor to his current status as a Republican kingmaker after serving as NEH chairman and later as secretary of education. In 1991, following the selection of Kristol’s wife, conservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, to deliver the prestigious annual Jefferson Lecture at the Library of Congress, conservative pundit George Will called the NEH “the best part of the government.”

But when the party in the White House changed, noted art critic Robert Hughes in Time, so did the conservatives’ party line. Earlier this year, Will warned, “If Republicans merely trim rather than terminate [the NEA and NEH], they . . . will prove that the Republican ‘revolution’ is not even serious reform.”

While art, literary criticism, gender studies and inquiries into race and class are all under conservative attack, history has emerged as perhaps the most hotly contested ground of all. Partly this is because parents care so deeply about what their children are taught in school. Partly it’s because of an explosion in the country’s interest in its past. Shows like Ken Burns’ The Civil War enraptured millions of PBS viewers. Cable now has a history channel. More than 47 million people, according to the National Park Service, visited the nation’s historic sites in 1993.

No less important, however, is the idea of “America” that will be taught to the next generation of the country’s leaders. Honest but critical history has always bedeviled America’s superpatriots. Back in 1913, the famed Columbia University historian Charles A. Beard published his revolutionary work, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. The Marion Ohio Star announced the news with the headline ‘Scavengers, Hyenalike, Desecrate the Graves of the Dead Patriots We Revere.’ The story informed readers that “if correctly represented” by reviewers, Beard’s book was “libelous, vicious and damnable” and that all patriotic citizens “should rise to condemn him and the purveyors of his filthy lies and rotten aspersions.”

The problem for conservatives is not so much liberalism; not all historians are liberals. The problem is history itself. Historians believe that America’s story is a complex one, fraught with moral ambivalence and ambiguity. Right-wingers fear that a national history that allows for America’s failings as well as its successes, that treats an unknown slave with the same respect it accords a general, will – like dirty song lyrics – corrupt the minds of America’s youth and undermine the psychological foundations of our society.

Given such stakes, it’s no surprise that a major-league controversy should arise almost every time conservative pundits and politicians get a whiff of what their sons and daughters are being taught in the nation’s great universities. In recent years tempests have brewed in teapot after historical teapot. When the Smithsonian attempted to display the history of the American West by focusing on the unhappy experience of American Indians and the despoiling of their land and culture, Will accused the institution of portraying the country’s westward expansion as “an alloy of only three elements – capitalist rapacity, genocide and ecocide.” The quincentennial of Columbus’ landing in the New World was similarly marred across the country by angry conservatives’ accusations of political correctness, an epithet that seems to apply to any work that does not hew to Gingrich’s view that American history should be taught as one long Horatio Alger story. More recently, right-wing attacks forced the Smithsonian to censor a historical exhibition featuring the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. The conflict, as the historian Anna K. Nelson told the Chronicle of Higher Education, is one between “history and memory.”

Despite the confusion engendered by the controversy, the authors of the new history standards insist that their work is in no way intended to substitute for a regular American-history textbook. The curricula do not constitute a new “version” of American history that will hitherto be shoved down students’ throats regardless of the views or beliefs of any given teacher or school district. Rather, the standards seek to outline the kinds of issues with which students might be expected to grapple at various points in their studies. While the standards do not bear much resemblance to the kind of history that most American adults learned when they were in high school, they do approach a consensus among historians and high school teachers. Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley believes they represent “a very centrist view of American history.”

What the standards do reject is the notion that there can be a single patriotically correct view of that history and that the past can be understood through the rote memorization of the names and dates of famous battles and personages. The emphasis instead is on critical thinking, alternative interpretations and the lives of everyday people. The standards ask students to challenge what they read and hear. While some legitimate objections can easily be raised to some of the interpretations implied in the thousands of historical examples offered, in most instances the authors go the extra mile to try to encourage the understanding of all points of view. With regard to the Vietnam War, for example, students are asked to “measure the impact of saturation bombing on North Vietnam and the effect of the invasion of Cambodia on the anti-war movement in the United States.” By the same token, they are also asked to consider “the proposition that national security during the Vietnam War necessitated restriction of individual civil liberties and the press. To what extent did voicing public dissent hinder the American war effort?” Jeannie Lang, a 16-year-old high school senior from Scarsdale, N.Y., insists that the teaching of the moral ambiguities of American history makes the story both more interesting and more credible. “Nothing in real life is cut and dried,” Jeannie notes, “so to learn history that way makes it seem unreal.”

That the history standards have raised the ire of conservatives is almost funny. The curricula were originally planned and funded by conservatives in the Bush administration, directed by none other than Lynne Cheney. The idea for a set of standards for high school students had been brewing for a long time – the mathematicians drew up theirs in 1989 – when Cheney’s NEH approved the initial $1.75 million grant. Beginning in early 1992, Gary Nash and the National Center for History in the Schools organized thousands of teachers, administrators, scholars and parents, along with groups ranging from the American Association of School Librarians to the National Education Association, to join in the effort. Cheney now accuses Nash and Co. of staging “a kind of intellectual shell game.” Earlier drafts, she insisted, emphasized “individual greatness” and “managed a tone of affirmation.”

Now a consistent complaint by the standards’ critics is that they emphasize “the sad and the bad,” skimping on America’s white male heroes to glorify a bunch of nobodies simply because they were black or female. Cheney found too many mentions of ex-slave Harriet Tubman (six) and not enough of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (one and zero, respectively). When the authors of the standards responded that they were intended to inspire students to think about issues that would naturally call to mind the great white men of American history, and, anyway, you can’t judge a book by its index, Cheney and her fellow attackers seemed to switch tactics. When I spoke to her recently, Cheney said that the “most serious” problem with the standards is the way they “scanted science so seriously.” Gary Nash now accepts this criticism and promises to rectify it in the next edition.

Ideology, not science, is the heart of the matter, however. The right-wing Family Research Council put together an alternative to the history standards called “Let Freedom Ring: A Basic Outline of American History.” The booklet, Cheney says, “is more in the mainstream of what history is” than the historians’ version and can be taken to express the conservatives’ idea of how American history should be taught. It covers the history of the Cold War without mentioning President Harry Truman’s internal security program, the CIA-directed coups in Guatemala and Iran and the agency’s secret war in Laos. The booklet’s entire description of the counterculture is as follows: “beatniks to hippies; drug culture; Woodstock.” In its VIP section on the era, the FRC mentions conservative heroes like the philosopher Russell Kirk and a famous segregationist, Sen. Strom Thurmond, but manages to exclude Bob Dylan, Abbie Hoffman and Dr. Benjamin Spock. Many of the texts it recommends are, significantly, more than 30 years old.

No one would argue that the content or even the very idea of national standards should not be debated. Both the concept itself and the nature of the guidelines represent a significant departure from the way history has been taught – and is still taught – in many parts of the country. FRC head Gary Bauer makes the thoughtful criticism that the primary problem with the national standards is their existence. “It is dangerous, in our view,” Bauer says, “for government or an agency of the government to come up with an official, ideal version of how to teach about the past. Our hope would be that our adversaries would be as nervous about that as we are.” He has a point. Eric Rothschild, a high school history teacher who chaired the focus group of the Organization of American Historians that recommended the adaptation of the standards, noted that when the issue was debated, “There were as many people on the left as on the right; they saw [the standards] as a national instrument.” Nash replies that this criticism would be more troubling were it not for the fact that the standards take an “explicit anti-official stance — the centerpiece is historical analysis and interpretation.”

Just where the standards will go from here is hard to say. Twenty thousand copies have been produced, and Nash says there are plans to present a revised edition. The standards will remain optional for local school boards as part of the Clinton administration’s “Goals 2000” program. Yet President Clinton has, surprise, surprise, shown little stomach for the entire controversy. Referring to Nash and Co., Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith insisted that Clinton “had nothing to do with those folks.”

The concern about the standards most frequently voiced by those who will be implementing them is not that students will be brainwashed or depressed but that they will be overwhelmed. Hannah Holborn Gray, former president of the University of Chicago, says, “If students graduating from college, let alone high school, knew as much and thought as well as the standards prescribe, we could die happy and . . . confident about the future of Western civilization.” Indeed, any student who managed to master all the material in the standards would know more American history than most senators and congressmen.

Here, perhaps, lies the greatest irony of the entire battle: Conservatives are counting up mentions of generals and slaves in voluntary history standards that most students will probably never see. We are currently in the midst of an educational crisis that threatens the very foundations of young people’s future. The dropout rate among high school students in big cities like New York is more than 50 percent. Many who do graduate cannot read and write above an elementary-school level. If the right-wingers paid a fraction of the attention to figuring out how to keep kids learning in school that they do to trying to censor what they’re taught there, then one day future historians might look back and see a real American revolution in what is now a failing educational system.

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