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History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teachings of the Past
     

History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teachings of the Past

by Gary B. Nash
 

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A great national controversy over the setting of voluntary standards for the teaching of history in our elementary and high schools erupted in 1994, opening up a new front in the nation's culture wars. As the authors Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn show, this phenomenon was not unfamiliar in the United States. Public debate over history has

Overview

A great national controversy over the setting of voluntary standards for the teaching of history in our elementary and high schools erupted in 1994, opening up a new front in the nation's culture wars. As the authors Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn show, this phenomenon was not unfamiliar in the United States. Public debate over history has frequently occurred during the past two centuries, usually involving a clash of views, along the ideological spectrum, regarding the objectives of education in a democratic society. What, the authors ask, is the purpose of teaching history to children? Do we revise and reinterpret the past to tell previously ignored stories because they reflect present-day democratic values and speak to the issues of our own time? Or do we believe that the primary role of schools, textbooks, and museums is to preserve traditional versions of the past, to teach the basic facts, and to instill patriotism in our students? How has this country grappled with these questions and developed its standards in contrast to other nations?

As head of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 through 1992, Lynne Cheney funded the creation of national standards in various disciplines. History was assigned to an office at the University of California, Los Angeles—designated the National Center for History in the Schools— where Nash and his colleagues began to gather ideas and opinions from all sectors of the educational community.

After the standards were written and published in 1994, Cheney attacked them in the Wall Street Journal for being too politically correct, for not adequately recognizing some of the great figures ofthe past, and for giving too much attention to women and minority groups. Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, and other conservative voices denounced the standards and their writers in a media war that continued for more than a year and culminated in action by the U.S. Senate. History on Trial tells the story of this rancorous debate, how changes in the standards were made, and how the resulting documents are now being widely used in our schools to further the accessibility and relevance of history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Why is America seemingly bedeviled by competing versions of history? What is history, and how should it be taught? These contentious questions are at the center of History on Trial. After an overview of how the teaching of American history has evolved, the authors recount the development of the National History Standards, a three-year project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and chaired by Nash, professor of history at UCLA. In October 1994, just as the standards were to be published, NEH chair Lynne Cheney wrote a scathingly critical op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal charging that, far from improving history education, the standards distorted history. The attack was soon taken up by other critics and eventually carried to Congress. Here, the authors present a spirited defense of a broad, inclusionary view, and their discussion of traditionalists' emphasis on facts versus a modern approach stressing empathy is especially illuminating. However, they undercut their argument, and their claim to dispassionate objectivity, with ad hominem attacks on traditionalists; "conservative" or "right wing" are frequently used as though they were sufficient to settle the argument. Moreover, the account teeters between broad generalization and the minutiae of committees, organizations and agencies. Regardless of one's own views, the final impression is of a great deal of energy expended not on education, historical research, or even cultural debate, but wasted on political turf wars. If there's a hopeful sign, it may be the observation that "authoritarian states don't have history wars, but democracies frequently do." Eight illustrations. (Sept.)
Kirkus Reviews
Three meticulous observers explore who decides what history gets taught to high-school students, with close attention to the current controversy over multiculturalism.

When Lynne Cheney was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, her organization funded a large and ambitious project to develop national standards for the study of history in high schools. Nash (History/UCLA), Crabtree (Education/UCLA), and Dunn (History/San Diego State Univ.) were all closely associated with the attempt to formulate a coherent, representative model of what "American high school students should understand about American and world history." But when the study appeared in 1994, Cheney was the first to vilify it publicly as an exercise in political correctness. Crabtree, Nash, and Dunn delve deeply and lucidly into the background of this highly contentious, highly politicized affair (high-school history as a patriotic indoctrination into an unchanging national essence vs. high-school history as a way of learning to make critical differentiations about thorny, mutable issues). In addition, they show that the debate about what kind of history should be learned in school has always been contentious and acrimonious.The authors—who staunchly defend the national standards they helped to establish, as well as the concept of history as a distinct discipline—also clarify the often aloof relationship between practicing historians in universities and the teachers of history in high schools. Finally, the authors deliver sensible, judicious, nuanced discussions of buzzwords (multiculturalism, Afrocentrism, identity politics) that have become confusing, and discuss the now loaded idea of Western civilization.

A provocative, detailed, and illuminating explanation of how we got into the so-called "culture wars" and what is at stake in them. Essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the relationship between history as an intellectual discipline and as a subject in school.

From the Publisher
"Brightly written and solidly researched...a model of good scholarship."—The Christian Science Monitor

"A stunning book...compelling drama quickly and unexpectedly takes over."  —St. Louis Post- Dispatch

"Fascinating...eloquent...a service to the nation's history teachers."—The Nation

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780679446873
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
09/01/1997
Edition description:
1 ED
Pages:
318
Product dimensions:
6.56(w) x 9.57(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

Gary B. Nash teaches American history at UCLA. Charlotte Crabtree taught curriculum studies at UCLA for over 30 years. Ross E. Dunn is Professor of History ar San Diego State University.

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