History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past
History on Trial is an engaging book that tells the story of the controversy over establishing National History Standards in 1993–95 from the perspective of three accomplished academics who were closely involved in the process: Gary B. Nash of UCLA, a prominent American social historian, coauthor of a popular textbook and of several studies of the colonial era; Ross E. Dunn of San Diego State, who writes about African, Islamic, and world history and was the first president of the World History Association; and Charlotte Crabtree, who taught curriculum studies at UCLA, where she chaired the Division of Administrative, Curriculum, and Teaching Studies in the Graduate School of Education.
The study opens with chapters outlining the authors’ philosophy on the study of history and on the main trends that have brought about the current state of the discipline. The past, they argue, is not set in stone but is continually reinterpreted by each succeeding generation. Much space is given to laying out these points, undoubtedly in reaction to the critical public response to the history standards. The authors note that historians have often been attacked for providing new ways of looking at the past. [End Page 438]
The story is then brought up to contemporary times. The “New History” was rooted in the social ferment of the 1960s, when it began to influence the writing of history. The authors argue that this social history, written for the first time by women and minorities, gave rise to the multicultural movement—a new way of looking at American and world society from perspectives other than those of white upper-class males. The last four chapters of the book detail the creation and controversy of the National History Standards.
The book’s strength is that it lets the reader observe the process from the inside and allows some light to be shed on the motivations behind the standards. Because the three authors are much too close to the situation to analyze it fairly, the book is a better first-person journalistic account than a history. But, as a journalistic account, it allows the reader to look in and see problems in the effort to establish the history standards.
With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the support of NEH director Lynne Cheney, the National Council for Standards was established with Nash and Crabtree as project codirectors. Virtually their first decision was to bar representatives of the far right and left because to include them would cause too much conflict. Had this decision been maintained more securely, perhaps there would have been less trouble. But a National Forum was also created, which contained a great many interest groups that, without question, represented a multicultural agenda. Although mainstream groups were involved, membership also included the Native American Heritage Commission, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Association for Asian and Pacific American Education, the Quality Education for Minorities Network, and the National Alliance of Black School Administrators. It is hard to understand how this could be perceived as avoiding the left wing.
Ironically, “inclusion” regarding the writing of history is repeated as a mantra throughout the book. Apparently inclusion applied only to women and minorities but not to conservatives. In the conclusion, the authors note that once conservative views were included in the deliberations as the standards were revised (by a newly formed organization with Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn sidelined), some minor compromises were made to conservative concerns, and the revised standards were generally quietly accepted. The authors seem to imply that this means that all the criticism was artificial and unnecessary. They miss the point. Had they approached the process properly in the beginning by bringing in some conservative groups (such as the Veterans [End Page 439] of Foreign Wars or Daughters of the American Revolution, for instance) and making some compromises, the standards would have had a much better chance at smooth sailing.
The authors ardently profess a “multicultural” stance. Yet, at different points in the study, the authors argue that it was the “right wing” that politicized the standards. Since multiculturalism is by its very nature an extremely politicized concept in American society, the standards were a hot political potato from the start. Further, multiculturalism, as an ideology, has made much greater inroads in academia than it has in society at large, where that old-fashioned word assimilation still seems to hold sway.
Critics of the standards are ridiculed in the book. Straw-man arguments abound. The ridiculous figure of Rush Limbaugh is given the stage to represent most of the critics. Cheney, apparently politically motivated, as the authors point out, represents the rest. It is not until the last full page of the book that the authors grant that perhaps critics of multiculturalism might have some reasonable concerns. This failure to deal openly and fairly with critics of both the standards and multiculturalism itself is a flaw both in the book and in the process as it is recounted.
Finally, in all these areas, the writers tend to emphasize that in the “culture wars” reasonable and rational historians were pitted against the rabid right and a rabble of other people who simply do not know any better. Lost along the way is the fact that many reasonable historians, who are not right-wing, have long been on opposite sides of these issues. The recent creation of a new organization, the History Society, largely by historians unhappy with what they perceive as the multicultural agenda of the American Historical Association and its emphasis on alternative kinds of history, is clear evidence that much of this remains disputed terrain.
Oddly, while much of the book is taken up with pointing out that historians have often been wrong about the past, it never apparently occurs to the authors to consider that they and their approaches might also be flawed. It reminds one of the judge who once said: “This court is often in error but never in doubt.”
As a historian who is sensitive to multicultural concerns and who enjoys and values teaching world history, I found History on Trial a fascinating but frustrating book. The volume makes a valuable contribution to a very important debate. Unfortunately, it undermines that contribution by adopting an unnecessarily defensive position that fails to credit critics with expressing legitimate concerns.
Had the authors addressed these concerns from a more conceptual [End Page 440] and less political viewpoint, they could have moved the debate forward rather than reinforcing the battle lines. Sadly, on balance, the publication of this book has probably given conservative critics more, rather than less, ammunition.