An interesting reversal: worldly elitists, philistine academicians

April 07, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Until now it has seemed both paradoxical and axiomatic that a nation that needs national standards for the teaching of its history should not seek such standards. This is because those who are apt to be called upon to write such standards will be teachers of history, the shortcomings of whose teaching have occasioned the call for standards.

A profession riven by intellectual disputes arising from political differences cannot be counted on to come to an acceptable consensus concerning what and how students should learn. But given a second chance to write standards, after a fiasco of a first attempt, the profession has produced revised standards that probably merit a passing grade.

The Bush administration gave a grant to UCLA's National Center for History in the Schools to develop national standards. The result was evidence for the proposition that educational localism is prudent because at least state and local mistakes are confined, rather than continental, mistakes.

The standards reflected the multiculturalists' mentality: America is an incoherent bazaar of cultures (the document referred to ''the American peoples'') and a cafeteria of values, all cultures and values being of equal importance and worth. They radiated the idea of therapeutic and affirmative-action history -- history taught to give victim groups special representation in the national narrative in order to make them feel good about themselves.

And the standards reflected the intellectuals' self-congratulatory understanding of themselves as constituting an ''adversary culture.'' Their adversary is the benighted complacency of most Americans, who do not recognize American history as a gloomy manifestation of the disease called Western civilization.

So the first standards described the Cold War in terms of the moral equivalence of the two sides -- as ''swordplay'' between ''two superpowers . . . competing for power and influence.'' Joseph McCarthy was mentioned 19 times, the Ku Klux Klan 17 times, the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention (which launched the women's suffragette movement) nine times, Harriet Tubman six times. But the Wright brothers and Edison went unmentioned. The founding of the National Organization for Women and the Sierra Club were mentioned, but not the first Congress.

Westward expansion was explained in terms of the avarice of ''restless white Americans.'' And there was what one distinguished and disgusted historian (John Diggins of the City University of New York) called ''the 'Dances with Wolves' kind of history where Native Americans are depicted as living in peaceful tribal solidarity, at one with nature, with no sense of possessiveness and competitiveness.'' Students were encouraged to analyze JFK's ''accomplishments'' and LBJ's ''leadership'' and the ''legacy'' of both, but also Coolidge's ''trickle-down'' policies. You get the picture.

In the revised standards produced by the UCLA center, partisanship has been purged from descriptions of modern presidents, the Cold War is related to dangerous internal and external dynamics of the Soviet Union, McCarthyism is related to Soviet espionage and other U.S. security anxieties. Gone are the suggested classroom activities, such as a mock trial of John D. Rockefeller.

A response to criticism

How improved the standards are is a matter of opinion. What is indisputable is that the revision was prompted and shaped by fierce criticism, some of it by distinguished liberals in academia (such as John Diggins and Arthur Schlesinger), much of it by conservatives not on campuses.

Which suggests an interesting reversal: Today many defenders of cultural standards are out in the world, and many philistines are in the academies.

It has been said that the trouble with the younger generation is that it has not read the minutes of the last meeting. That is, its members have not been taught history in a way that makes them legatees of a shared and valuable culture. But the question remains: Should there be national standards?

Recently the president, meeting with governors, embraced their preference for state standards. The president is a former governor; he is a supple bender to conservative breezes. But there is a two-part conservative case to be made for national standards.

One part is that the revision of the standards proves that the historians' profession is not incorrigible or impervious to arguments congenial to conservatives. The second part is that national standards assert the reality of what many multiculturalists deny -- the existence of a unifying common culture worthy of conserving. The annoyance of multiculturalists is a nearly irresistible reason.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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