Harvard Educational Review
  1. History on Trial

    Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past

    By Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn

    New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. 318 pp. $26.00

    History is, as the authors of this book remind us, “hot” (p. 7). In fact, history became front-page news in 1994 as the result of a public and political debate over what version of the past would be taught in U.S. schools. That debate echoed from the halls of high schools to the halls of the U.S. Senate. In History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past, authors Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross Dunn — themselves central players in this political spectacle — detail the conflict that erupted over the creation of national history standards.

    In 1991, the movement for national educational standards was in full bloom. Backed by national political leaders in the Bush administration and funded by agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, a consortium of nine educational organizations that included the Organization of History Teachers (OHT), the National Council for History Education (NCHE), and the Association for Supervision, Curriculum, and Development (ASCD) launched the National History Standards Project. The authors of History on Trial, three of the many developers of this project, chronicle the challenges involved in such a task, reveal the complexity of setting standards in such a value-laden project, and record the battles that resulted.

    Although nonfiction, History on Trial bears the mark of high political drama. As such, the first six chapters are the exposition, presenting the cultural conflict that underlay the development of the standards and that grabbed public attention in 1994. To recreate the intellectual, social, and political contexts in which this debate occurred, the authors explore the changes in the discipline of history during the first half of this century as a result of new scholarship that expanded history education’s venue from Western civilization to world history. These chapters examine the ongoing battle during this century over the purpose of history and history education in a democracy, both in the United States and in England.

    The remaining chapters play out that drama as they detail the war that erupted with the publication of the history standards in 1994 and carry it to its climax on the floor of the U.S. Senate. By the 1990s, according to Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn, the roles in this drama had already been cast. On one side were the “militant monoculturalists of the Right” who demanded that history promote “Ozzie and Harriet patriotism and exclusive celebration of the Western tradition” (p. 99). On the other were “militant multiculturalists . . . [who had] romanticized the history of their particular group or region out of all recognition, and stigmatized Western civilization as the world’s oldest evil empire” (p. 99).

    Although the authors and educators involved in this project recognized its potential to become an ideological battleground, it seems certain they did not anticipate the attack that would follow the release of the standards in 1994. An assemblage of public figures ranging from Lynne Cheney, head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, assailed the integrity of the standards and their creators. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Senator Slade Gorton of Washington denounced the standards as an “ideologically driven anti-West monument to politically correct caricature” designed “to destroy our Nation’s mystic chords of memory” (p. 234). By a vote of 99 to 1, the Senate recommended rejection of the standards, a move that had more symbolic than instrumental effect.

    This drama, unlike many, has no neat conclusion; even in the last act the drama was not over. The authors of History on Trial remind us that the struggle to define history continues, even though this episode in the battle over history standards has ended. In the concluding chapter, the authors remind us that this battle was and remains a cultural war. One wonders if perhaps the title and subtitle should have been reversed to “Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past: History on Trial,” for it is that war and its warriors who are highlighted in this nonfictional drama. Still, the book presents a complex view of an ongoing battle over curriculum that, as Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn remind us, has been fought before and will be fought again as each generation struggles to define what the past is, what it means, and how that interpretation will be passed on to the next generation.

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