The Spectre of Political Correctness: A Reflection on the National History Standards Debate

Michael Oberg

Although historians have been by no means the sole object of recent jeremiads assailing the introduction of "political correctness" and "multiculturalism" in American classrooms, we certainly have borne the brunt of the attack. Few of these assaults have been warranted, and even fewer well-informed. Indeed much of the recent criticism of the teaching and writing of American history, I would argue, poses a significant threat to freedom of thought and freedom of inquiry. Nothing reveals this better than the recent debate over the National History Standards, a set of voluntary guidelines for teaching, respectively, the history of the United States and World History.

Though in recent months the National History Standards have slipped from the public's attention, history and the question of what it is that historians do, has not. National political leaders and historians have rekindled a long-standing debate over who is to interpret the past, what the record of that past will contain, and the ends to which it will be taught to our children. The rhetoric used by the principal critic of the Standards project, former chairperson of the NEH, Lynne Cheney (whose agency, with the Department of Education, initially funded the project), and her cohorts in their crusade against the Standards will undoubtedly continue to surface as the 1996 presidential election approaches. Certainly Bob Dole's critique of American historians in a Labor Day address last September suggests that many political conservatives believe that the recent writing and teaching of history has produced a "politically correct" vision of history to be taught to our children. As Cheney charged at the height of the Standards debate in the fall of 1994, American historians have deprecated the achievements of dead, white, European males, sullied the genuine accomplishments of European and American culture, while at the same time they have focused upon oppression, injustice, the contributions of minorities, and the crimes and misdeeds of the great figures in American and European history (1).

Cheney and others have dismissed the Standards, and much recent historical scholarship as "politically correct," and have crudely and opportunistically used that ambiguous term in a fashion reminiscent of Senator Joe McCarthy's brutish anti-communist campaigns. Yet historians, it seems, have not found much success in convincing the wider American public that a history that includes numerous voices and numerous perspectives is entirely justifiable on scholarly grounds. To omit those voices because they were "powerless" or "marginalized," or because their cries of injustice detract from the master narrative of the march of electoral politics and American democracy, is a deep and profound sort of professional irresponsibility (2). In the face of this barrage of criticism, historians must seize upon the public interest in history and explain to the public just what it is that they do, and why it is important.

In Graeme Swift's novel Waterland, the protagonist, a history teacher named Tom Crick, explains to his students that history is all "about the question why." History was, Crick continued, "that impossible thing: the attempt to give an account, with incomplete knowledge, of actions themselves undertaken with incomplete knowledge" (3). While the comfort of certainty might prove elusive (Crick never found it), the importance of asking questions about the past remained. History, at heart, is the study of continuity and change. By selecting, criticizing, analyzing and assessing evidence--the raw material of historical scholarship--historians offer explanations for how and why a certain thing, person, or event came to be. The honest historian must examine all the possible agents of change and constituents of stability and be aware, always, that events unfold at a number of levels. To put it another way, we cannot hope. to arrive at an acceptably plausible understanding of the past without examining all the forces that contribute to historical change. To close off certain fields of inquiry, to dismiss them rashly as "politically correct" (however one defines this), does a profound disservice to students coming of age in a society dedicated to the principle of free inquiry, and at best produces a truncated vision of the American past.

A look in detail at how the American History Standards treated the era of the American Revolution reveals the extent to which critics of the Standards like Cheney conjured up a P.C. phantom, lurking about the halls of academe, awaiting a chance to subvert American history and pour anti-American venom into young minds. Indeed, the Standards' coverage of this period drew an enormous amount of fire last spring. Most Americans, and certainly Cheney, still see the Revolution as an affair of heroes, of a small band of patriots who in the face of tremendous adversity, forged together a tenuous intercolonial union which freed the liberty-loving, white, Anglo-Saxon colonists from the odious despotism of that Hanoverian tyrant, George III. Popular images of the Revolution focus on the proverbial "Great Men" in American history--dead white European males all (to use a tired cliché)--Washington crossing the Delaware, the winter at Valley Forge, Paul Revere's heroic ride, and Patrick Henry defiantly calling for liberty or death, but preferably the former, in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Historians have long recognized that a narrow focus on these figures, the pantheon in America's civic religion, cannot accurately represent the totality of the revolutionary experience in America. We know more about plain people, and their experiences during the Revolution, than ever before. Historians, however, have failed to get this message across to the broader public. Consequently, when the standards on the American Revolution incorporated and publicized this scholarship, based on thirty years' research and critical historical writing, and is hardly in itself revolutionary in the field, critics responded with charges of blasphemy.

The American History Standards' coverage of the Revolution consisted of three "standards" or broad themes, which students should understand. First, students should be able to describe "the causes of the American Revolution, the ideas and interests involved in the forging of the revolutionary movement, and the reason for the American victory" (4). Under the first standard, students should be able to explain, among other things, the consequences of the Seven Years' War and the overhaul of British imperial policy which followed the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the arguments among Patriots and Loyalists about independence, and "how the decision to declare independence was reached." Students should also demonstrate an understanding of the principles articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. This requires students not only to explore the major ideas expressed in the Declaration, but also to examine the very real contradictions between the ideas expressed in the Declaration and the realities of chattel slavery (5).

Under the first standard students must learn something of the diplomatic and military history of the American Revolution. They should analyze "the character and roles of the military, political, and diplomatic leaders who helped forge the American victory," "the problems of financing the war and dealing with wartime inflation, hoarding, and profiteering," and the reasons for American victory. Students should also analyze the relationships between America and "France, Holland and Spain during the Revolution and the contribution of each European power to the American victory" and also study the terms of the Treaty of Paris, and its "implications for relationships between the United States and the Native American and European powers that continued to hold territories and interests in North America" (6).

The second standard, or theme, in the Standards' coverage of the American Revolution requires that students should understand "how the American Revolution involved multiple movements among the new nation's many groups to reform American society." Students should compare the reasons which influenced many whites, African Americans, and Native Americans to side with Great Britain; analyze the effect of the Revolution on slaves and upon the institution of slavery; and examine the extent to which "the revolutionary goals of different groups were achieved and how the Revolution altered social, political, and economic relations among them" (7). The American Revolution, as the historian Gordon Wood recently pointed out, "did more than legally create the United States; it transformed American society." The Standards ask students to understand these transformations by viewing the era's history broadly and inclusively, thus bringing both complexity and comprehensiveness to their understanding of the Revolution (8).

The third, and final standard on the American Revolution states that students should understand "the institutions and practices of government created during the Revolution and how they were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundation of the American political system." Students, under this standard, should understand the process of government-making at both national and state levels, analyze the arguments over the Articles of Confederation, the formation of state constitutions and assess the accomplishments and failures of the Continental Congress (9).

Students further should demonstrate an understanding "of the issues involved in the creation and ratification of the United States Constitution and the government it established" by analyzing the factors involved in calling the Constitutional Convention, analyzing the fundamental ideas behind the distribution of powers and the system of checks and balances established by the Constitution, and comparing the arguments of Federalists and Antifederalists during the ratification debates. Students should also "demonstrate understanding of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights and its continuing significance." The Standards state that students should understand the development of the nation's "First Party System"--that which pitted Federalists against Jeffersonian Republicans--by comparing the different positions taken by the two parties on the central economic and foreign policy issues of the 1790s, as well as the leaders and the social and economic composition of each party. Finally, as part of Standard 3, students should study the evolution of the Supreme Court and its powers and significance between 1789 and 1820 (10).

In attacking the standards, the critics blatantly misrepresented or simply ignored their contents. Cheney's frequent charge that the Constitution was not discussed in the Standards clearly is rubbish. Certainly, criticism, scholarship and debate go together, and the Standards should be debated vigorously. Yet in the tactics Cheney and others used to discredit the Standards--dissimulation misrepresentation and dishonesty--and in a number of implications easily visible within their arguments, I see an alarming trend, as certain modes of historical inquiry are deemed acceptable while others are rashly dismissed as "P.C." and thoughtlessly consigned by Cheney, Dole, and others to the dustbin of dubious, polemical, tendentious, and presentist scholarship.

If the critics of the Standards are to be believed, the National History Standards represented the embodiment and institutionalization of the multiculturalist creed celebrated by the sixties' radicals who, in their view, dominate the nation's college campuses. Patrick Buchanan has made such a charge a standard part of his stump speech. The Standards, then, which did little more than synthesize the historical scholarship of the last thirty years, have been viewed as a threat to the stability of the American educational system, one that could raze the traditions of the American past, further the fragmentation and "disuniting of America," and undermine that love of the nation's heritage which ought to form the bulwark of a truly American education. With the publication and eventual implementation of the Standards, conservatives see their arch enemy--the "Academic Left"--winning a crucial battle in the so-called "culture war."

Those who supported the Standards and those who opposed them carry two very different conceptions of the function of historical knowledge. For the critics of the Standards history carried an essential and instrumental civic purpose: the primary reason to teach history in the schools is to educate informed and devoted citizens who have faith in their country, its institutions, and its ideals. This is central to their expressed objections to the documents produced by the National Center for History in the Schools, documents which ironically share the same goal. The proponents have argued that the Standards provide a more "truthful" and realistic reconstruction of the past. Patriotism, in this sense, is pitted against scholarship, and heritage against history. By emphasizing the diversity of the American experience, by suggesting that the study of history ought to include all the groups which shaped our enormously complex culture, and that history can and should be much more than merely the affirmation of comforting historical fables constructed to suit a particular political or psychological need, the Standards have in the eyes of their critics somehow subverted the civic function of history, and are consequently dismissed as "P.C."

Viewing the history of the United States in a multicultural, comparative, and global framework, however, will destroy no student's patriotism (11). Rather, it will give students a keener insight into the complexity of the history of the United States, its strengths and successes, its weaknesses and failures, and what it shares and how it differs from the rest of the world.

American historians will continue to face charges that the traditional white male heroes of American history are being squeezed out of the story for political reasons, and that scholars are deliberately distorting the historical record in order to make room for 'politically correct" figures like Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Powhatan and Margaret Sanger. To follow this logic, implicit in much recent criticism of the National History Standards and the historical profession, representation of minority and underrepresented figures in the curricula can only come at the expense of the white heroes of the American saga. This is a deeply troubling argument because so many of the heroic myths that Cheney and other critics celebrated are tragically incomplete and, at times, completely in error. Certain historical subjects are deemed more worthy of study than others, and the criteria for assessing that worth is framed to a significant degree by the "importance" (read as power, race or gender) of that historical subject. Those who challenge the older, heroic portrayal of the past, a vision with an avowedly civic function, have been painted as radical multiculturalists seeking to foist their political agenda upon American schoolchildren, resulting ultimately in the increasing Balkanization of American culture.

It is the subject matter of much recent historical scholarship which most concerns the critics, and they are not challenging this work on the grounds of scholarship or the interpretation of evidence, but rather on the appropriateness of its subject matter (12). By arguing that history should be the study of all Americans, as the former president of the Organization of American Historians Lawrence Levine wrote, recent American historians have challenged the long held notion of the melting pot, that huge cauldron into which the offscouring of all the world was tossed, and out of which Crevecoeur's "New Man," the American, was poured. The notion of an American melting pot has been celebrated for so long that it has come to occupy the status of an assumed truth. It has become a part of the American creed, an article of faith. Consequently, challenges to this old orthodoxy that emphasize the diversity of the American experience, Levine wrote, "no matter how scholarly and carefully rooted in the sources and the normal rules of historical discourse, have been seen as assaults on rationality." This perception, Levine continued, "accounts for the ease with which critics lump scholarly and nonscholarly, carefully researched and primarily rhetorical, challenges together and dismiss them as 'politically correct' and therefore unworthy of credence or careful examination" (13).

The critics of the National History Standards, and implicitly of a multicultural approach to the American past, have failed to recognize that matters of curriculum always have been a source of debate. Even the Western Civilization course which critics see as presently under assault from all quarters emerged out of a need to adapt to social change during the era of the First World War (14). The current debate is merely the latest episode in a much larger story, and historians, as they have always done, are reacting to a changed world (15).

Scholarship is an ongoing and dialectical process. Theses and interpretations are replaced and supplemented as new evidence and information surfaces. Findings that are not sufficiently grounded in evidence--in the raw material of historical scholarship--are rejected. The critics of the Standards, however, have not focussed on scholarship, and the canons of argumentation and proof that accompany this pursuit. Rather, they have objected to the very subject matter of much of the recent writing of American history. There are perfectly justifiable scholarly reasons to support a multicultural approach to American history, and historians must challenge the recent tendency to dismiss the fruits of this scholarship as "politically correct." Underlying the recent attacks on the National History Standards and the historical profession is the assumption that the reverence for the past that all Americans should share has been fouled and sullied by an insidious insurgency, by a coterie of radicals, "multiculturalists," and "P.C.ers" disguised as college professors. Nothing is further from the truth, and the entire debate over the National History Standards showed that the tired cliché "politically correct" could provide a potent and attention-getting weapon to be employed against anyone who calls for a more inclusive, complex, and truly democratic portrayal of the past.

  1. For Cheney's initial critique, see the Wall Street Journal, 20 October 1994.

  2. On this point, see Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York: Norton, 1994).

  3. Graham Swift, Waterland (New York: Posiden Press, 1982), 108.

  4. National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience (Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, 1994), 72.

  5. Ibid., 73-74.

  6. Ibid., 75-79.

  7. Ibid., 80-81.

  8. Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1992), 6.

  9. Standards for United States History, 82-83.

  10. Ibid., 84-90.

  11. James Hill, "Present Controls Past, Controls Future," The History Teacher 28 (May, 1995), 435-39.

  12. See Michael Kammen, "History as a Lightning Rod," OAH Newsletter, Organization of American Historians, 23 (May, 1995), 1 and 6.

  13. Lawrence W. Levine, "Clio, Canons and Culture," Journal of American History 80 (December, 1993), 866.

  14. Gilbert Allardyce, "The Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization Course," American Historical Review 87 (June, 1982), 695.

  15. See David M. Kennedy, "A Vexed and Troubled People," The History Teacher 28 (May, 1995), 417-422.

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