In the late '80s and early '90s, conservatives in the Bush administration, alarmed at the decline in American education, pushed for national standards to help restore discipline and excellence to American schools. By 1992 they had won. Congress authorized task forces to draw up national standards for core academic subjects.
Beware what you wish for. The National Standards for United States History have just been published. And, as some (most notably, the National Review) had warned at the time, they have been hijacked by the educational establishment and turned into a classic of political correctness.
Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is rightly apoplectic at seeing her idea corrupted beyond recognition. This 271-page curriculum guide for grades five to 12, she points out, contains 19 mentions of Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism, six of Harriet Tubman, not one of Robert E. Lee or Thomas Edison or the Wright brothers or Albert Einstein. The whole document strains to promote the achievements and highlight the victimization of the country's preferred minorities, while straining equally to degrade the achievements and highlight the flaws of the white males who ran the country for its first two centuries.
Gary Nash, co-director of the commission that put together the history standards, offers this illuminating explanation for its omissions: "As far as the absence of particular people such as Thomas Edison, also missing are great black inventors and great female inventors." In one sentence, Nash betrays two malignant tendencies of the new historiography: its obsession with counting by race and gender and its refusal to exercise any faculties of discrimination for fear of, well, discriminating.
All men are created equal. But all inventors? After all, which great black or female inventors -- which other white inventors, for that matter -- gave the world three of the seminal inventions of our time: the incandescent lamp, the phonograph and the central electric power plant?
But even more corrosive than the ethnic cheerleading and the denigration of American achievements is the denigration of learning itself. Nash proclaims proudly that the traditional "emphasis on dates, facts, places, events" in the teaching of history is something he wanted to "bury." "Let's let the kids out of the prison of facts, the prison of dates and names and places, and let's have them discuss really important momentous turning points in American history."
But how can they discuss anything without first having mastered dates, facts, places and events? History, like journalism, has to start with who did what when. Once you know that, then you can turn to the editorial pages.
Nash, it seems, was "bored" by the fact-based history of his childhood. (Michael Eisner recently made the same complaint in defending his own little project of historical revisionism.) In place of the old "passive" history of events and facts, Nash wants "to have mock trials, to stage debates," to get kids "even writing history themselves." This conforms well with the reigning educational ideology under which the point of learning is not the absorption of knowledge (passive, therefore bad) but self-expression ("empowering," therefore good).
As if the problem with America's children is a lack of opportunity for self-expression, rather than a profound deficiency in the tools -- the literacy, the scientific grounding, the historical knowledge -- to express themselves meaningfully. It was precisely the woeful lack of these tools, documented in the 1983 "Nation at Risk" report on American education, that sparked the drive for national standards in the first place.
Ten-year-olds can easily be induced to have opinions about anything. The reason they go to school, however, is to acquire knowledge. Opinions will follow.
Criticism of the history standards has thus far focused on the ideological slant they try to impart to students' opinions -- the slant of a history dominated by what historian Gertrude Himmelfarb calls the "deterministic trinity" of "race, gender and class." But the deeper problem is not the slant of opinion but its worship.
Indeed, the larger project of the new history is to collapse the distinction between fact and opinion, between history's news and editorial pages. In the new history, there are no facts independent of ideology and power, no history that is not political.
The "old" history is but a story -- "narrative," in the jargon -- told by the ruling classes to consolidate their power. So now we shall have a new history. Its purpose is to empower students against these elites by teaching them their own counter-narrative, heavy on McCarthy, light on Edison.
It is about to become your children's official history.