Neutralizing Our History

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington. -- There is nothing more important than teaching America's story to American children.

Unfortunately, the new "National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience" doesn't do the job right. Up front is this statement: "This paper does not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the United States government, and no official endorsement should be XTC inferred."

Not yet, anyway. But it might happen, unless the Clinton administration speaks out. Otherwise, there is a risk of making a political shambles of the idea of setting (voluntary) standards for American schools, as embodied in President Clinton's "Goals 2000: Educate America Act."

It's not that this new standard history doesn't cover the key aspects of American history. Its thick prose deals with far more than students from grades 5-12 can be expected to absorb. It touches on the peopling of America 30,000 years ago, and compares "The Simpsons" with "Ozzie and Harriet." A student is asked about the African political kingdoms of Mali, Songhai and Benin, about reverse discrimination, about how "white land hunger" shaped pre-Revolutionary times, and about what they think of the idea that "Ronald Reagan's defense and military initiatives led to the collapse of communism." Shay's Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, Jay's treaty and the Monroe Doctrine all make their appearance.

The problem is in the point of view. One is prevalent. Another is missing.

The one that dominates stresses those who were "left out" of earlier histories. It's true that in times past not enough attention was paid to women, blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics. But here they seem to be the principal players on a politically correct stage, with each honored group appearing in each of 10 "eras." And so Harriet Tubman, a black woman who rescued slaves, gets six mentions. Robert E. Lee gets zip.

What's left out of this work is a single broad positive theme that defines our story. George Will has written that "America is the most important thing that ever happened." I pretty well buy that. The academic New Historians dismiss such thinking as "triumphalism." The co-director of the standard-history project, Gary B. Nash, says the document in question is "against triumphalism." He told me that too many nations have suffered from viewing themselves "as us, the good guys, versus them, the bad guys."

This sort of value-free lens prompted Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, to issue a statement, somewhat positive, which also notes that "the section on the Cold War doesn't even mention Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe." He regards the work as "a draft that deserves respectful debate -- and requires substantial revision." He's right.

America is not just another nation. That subversive thought even manages to seep into the draft a few times. Thus, nearly buried, it is reported that the voyages of Columbus "led . . . to the planting of English settlements where the ideas of representative government and religious toleration would grow haltingly and, over several centuries, would inspire similar transformations in other parts of the world."

What will our children be taught? That we are just another country in the us-vs.-them game? Or that we have changed the world, mostly for the better?

The process of setting up voluntary standards began in the Bush administration. Its resolution will come about during President Clinton's time. Soon Mr. Clinton will appoint the 19-member board of the National Educational Standards and Improvement Council. That board can "certify" new standards, or ask for changes, or dump them.

The U.S. history standards have already become politicized. Expect more. Conservatives are on the warpath. The world history standards, coming soon, are supposed to be worse still, putting Western Civilization in its place, which is not high. (Other standards, in geography, civics and math, are apparently on the right track.)

Now that the issue has been raised politically, it would be good to hear from Bill Clinton. He'll pick the board. What does he want our children to learn about America? Value-neutral? Or great country?

It's important: Those kids will star in the next chapters of American history.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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