Louise Hutchinson was fuming. She had just finished a booklet slated to become part of a new local history course for D.C. public school students. tThe text, she said, did not adequately cover the contributions of blacks and other minorities in its version of the District's history.
"I have real concerns about accuracy of history," Hutchinson, historian and director of research at Anacostia Museum, said after reading the later-revised booklet, "I believe it must reflect participation of all."
But Frederick Gutheim, a former George Washington University historian, had another concern, that there was too much black representation and the project would become a black history course.
"I would prefer that the D.C. History Project be focused on Washington and not on negritude," he said. History should be taught as it happened and not reshaped to fit current perceptions, he argued.
With only a year left to test and publish a local history textbook for classroom use, the District's pilot history project is facing a number of serious challenges as it approaches its June 1981 grant expiration date.
The project was undertaken because Washington may be the only jurisdiction in the union without a local history course in its public school system, project officials said. Rather than teaching the history of Washington as a place where people live, history courses have focused on Washington as a federal enclave.
Solving the issue of minority contributions is not the project's only problem.
Teachers testing the material say the information supplied by university professors is to difficult for ninth graders to read, especially in a school system where many students have reading problems.
Jim Guines, associate superintendent for instruction, said the pilot program is an attempt to challenge students to improve their reading.
"We do not want to lose the richness of language that keeps history interesting," he explained.
Teachers say, however, while the challenge of complicated language works with some students, others are simply lost.
One of the writers, David Lewis, a professor of history at the University of the District of Columbia, admitted that in at least one instance the text was too complicated for ninth grade readers.
Lewis, who wrote the section of D.C. history between the 1940s and 1950s, said he believes university historians would have no problem writing for ninth-grade students as long as they explained their terms and approached the material in a logical manner. "I tried to write the history in a straight-forward manner and tried to avoid writing down to the students."
Anita Henderson, a pilot teacher for the course who has heard the complaints of both students and teachers, said, "We are just going to have to work up ways to deal with the problem." She said teachers and project organizers might have to rewrite sections of the material and use innovative methods to teach it.
The history project, supported by a $380,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is designed to enable both local historians and teachers to catalogue the District's history for students.
The ambitious project calls, in part, for students to do primary research with original documents, including pages from city directories, maps, pictures and newspaper clippings, to draw conclusions about interesting facets of Washington's history.
"We are trying to give students a sense of place (where they came from) that has not been available before," said Brenda Nixon, pilot project director. "I am hoping we can excite some students who would not ordinarily be interested in history."
The enthusiasm for a D.C. history course began shortly before the bicentennial when feelings were high for recording and teaching additional history of Washington and other cities. In 1975, the D.C. Board of Education voted to include a required local history course in all of its 30 junior high schools at the ninth-grade level.
Students now study the course, which must have final approval from the school board, on a volunteer basis.
Responding to the criticism from teachers and text reviewers, Nixon said she and other project officials have tried to incorporate as much of the criticism as possible in later revisions of the text.
School board president R. Calvin Lockridge, said he, too, is worried about the D.C. History Project and will not approve the pilot program unless he is satisfied it has enough information about minority contributions. "I heard the criticism of Louise Hutchinson and I don't want to spend money and be guilty of what white historians have done all along."
Project officials and local historians admit there are other problems as well with using information supplied by university professors. One problem is that the historical interpretation of historians is generally limited to their areas of research expertise. This often means their writing does not provide general information important to ninth grade students, including growth of government, importance of culture and the District's relationship to U.S. history.
In addition, both historians and project officials agree, the history text lacks continuity because it was developed by a committee instead of being written by one "generalist," as is the case with most history textbooks.
"We are going to have to revise a lot of the material," said Kathryn Smith, project designer and resource specialist. "We are now considering having one historian write the final text."