Thursday, May 26, 2005

DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY

"In order to read the destiny of a people, it is necessary to open the book of its past" - Dr. Jose P. Rizal

A friend forwarded me this article from SLATE.COM. It's a brief but meaningful debate/exchange on the study of history between a UC professor of history and a bureaucrat/consultant in the California school system. Both parties obviously have valid points that reflect their interpretations of the subject: the purpose and function of the study of history, what should it cover, how should it be taught, who should and who can teach history well, etc. The debaters' concerns are truly relevant to teaching history anywhere.

It seems that currently in our adopted country the US of A, many states and schools fail to teach history well, with unqualified teachers, with "the blind leading the blind" so to speak. I have thought about , felt and witnessed the rampant ignorance of most American citizens about history, i.e. US and World History, I venture to say, in my 27 years of living and working here. Thus, for the thinker, one sees the "closing of the American Mind" as it applies to domestic and foreign relations.

I am a firm believer in the fact that ignorance of the historical past, especially of its mistakes, guarantees its repeat; and that knowing only the good part of history, tends to mold one into becoming self-righteous, into a delusion of grandeur, into believing that he is the "chosen" one. That his country is always right.

We tend to forget that, as in our respective professions and even ordinary human interaction, we knowingly or unknowingly rely and use history: of data, event, etc. on subjects of interests, of the matters at hand and to rightly or wrongly create stereotypes, for example. So the need to use the same acquired systematic way of thinking about human history, of a nation or nations, of society to analyze, understand and resolve its problems.

Much more important to realize that we Filipinos, at home and abroad, seem to have arrived and deteriorated to a similar intellectual emptiness and predicament, but with greater and worse results for our fellow countrymen "left behind". As time went and goes by, attributable to mis-education, mis-information, dis-information, leading to our ignorance of our peoples' nationalistic past; all thanks to our neo-colonial education, which caused our naive openness and preference for the foreign and the foreigner before we learned about ourselves.


In our homeland's case, we can not afford a "balanced" approach since in the past and present years, our homeland's history, as it refers to Philippine-US relationships, has been imbalanced in favor of the Americans, who as far as we baby boomers can remember, are only "the good guys" and "do-gooders" in history. It is time for us, especially for Filipinos-in-the-Philippines to recover our history, a nationalist history, which necessitates uncovering the lies and myths about America; since the American arrival into and occupation of our homeland, the sweet nothings about "Philippine-American Special Relations", etc. perpetuated through our school textbooks, mass media, government pronouncements, Filipinos with Americanized minds, etc.

And thus we as "a people"are not really a people, but have turned into individualized strangers in our own homeland; a homeland we never knew because we did not care or not learned to know. And so our neglect of and ignorance about the homeland made us lose it; and our great loss is a great gain to foreigners: American, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc who have made our homeland a paradise only for themselves and their few, westernized and monied native partners.

PS. RE developing a nationalist education for Filipinos. In a recent posting I had one of the many excellent articles written during the early 1980s by Leticia Constantino, wife of the great Filipino nationalist of recent history - the late Renato Constantino. A collection of these concise essays, in several slim volumes, designed to help understand important national issues and developments was published, and as a teacher's aid to developing a nationalist education, under the title "Issues Without Tears", extremely useful to those who have no time nor patience to read books or scholarly treatises, as Mrs. Constantino explained. Hopefully the books are still available in Philippine bookstores. I highly recommend buying them.

“The HISTORY of an oppressed people is hidden in the lies and the agreed myth of its conquerors.” - Meridel Le Sueur, American writer, 1900-1996
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history book blitz American History 101
Do contemporary politics belong in a course on U.S. History?
By Diane Ravitch and Jon Wiener, Updated Thursday, May 19, 2005, at 11:03 AM PT

From: Jon Wiener,
To: Diane Ravitch,
Subject: How To Revive History by "Teaching the Conflicts",

Posted Tuesday, May 17, 2005, at 4:17 AM PT
Click
here to read more from Slate's History Week.

More than a decade ago, the first Bush administration asked historians to draft guidelines for what all schoolchildren should know about the American past. The resulting curriculum guide, however, drew fire from critics for being politically correct—paying more attention to slavery and McCarthyism than to battlefield triumphs or great inventors like Thomas Edison. The historians and their defenders replied that they weren't trying to prescribe a fixed catalog of facts to teach but rather important themes in the American past and habits of mind necessary for thinking about history, and that it was necessary to teach the bad as well as the good.

The debate over how history should be taught—and what role if any it should play in instilling patriotism in children—has continued. Under the current Bush administration, Sen. Robert Byrd sponsored an initiative to fund collaborations between secondary schools and professional historians. Bush's National Endowment for the Humanities' new "We the People" program promotes history education that celebrates America's past and its democratic system. To many historians' surprise, the federal funding available for history has surged. But how it will be spent leads invariably into politics.

Slate's editors thought that the political questions about the teaching of history deserved some informed debate. Most people can probably agree that history should neither be an uncritical celebration of bygone heroes nor a bill of indictment against dead white men; its purpose is neither to build self-esteem nor to indoctrinate. But the middle ground between these poles is a difficult one to map. Should history be used to promote patriotism and a regard for American democracy? If so, what's wrong with its being used also to instill pride among blacks, women, or gays? How much should history education focus on heroes and how much on debunking myths? Does knowing history make us better citizens?

With these questions as merely a guide, we've asked Diane Ravitch, author of The Language Police, and Jon Wiener, professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and author most recently of Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics in the Ivory Tower, to debate the issues.

Dear Diane,

Debates about how much American students know about their own history, and about how our citizens should be taught what they don't know, are anything but abstract ones these days. Before we get down to the business of discussing those questions, let me set the current scene. President Bush campaigned in 2004 with the argument that we were fighting in Iraq for freedom and democracy, and that America was on a historic mission. Some opponents expressed skepticism about that, but the president's re-election suggests that a majority of voters accept what historians might call this Wilsonian vision as a justification for war. They did this despite the fact that past wars often turned out differently from what presidents promised at the beginning, despite what we might call the lessons of history.

While "the lessons of history" provide no simple solutions to today's problems and policy conflicts, an effective democracy requires some knowledge on the part of its citizens of the nation's past. Of course, "the lessons of history" are often disputed—the causes of the Civil War, the legitimacy of dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what we learned from Vietnam. That is why the best approach in the classroom is, as educators say, to "teach the conflicts." Teachers ought to say where they stand, and why. But they also have an obligation to be fair—to present the best arguments and evidence for the interpretations they disagree with. Then we should invite students to think for themselves.

"Teach the conflicts" was first proposed by
Gerald Graff almost 20 years ago; his strategy applied to teaching not just history but all of the humanities. At a time when the humanities were engaged in a protracted battle between traditionalists and postmodernists, Graff offered a way out; he argued that honesty requires teaching about debates among schools of interpretation. Not surprisingly, some traditionalists objected, on the grounds that teaching the conflicts was a subversive way to advance the forces of relativism—and some postmodernists objected on the grounds that traditional approaches to "truth" had been rendered obsolete. Yet teaching the conflicts indisputably makes for great pedagogy because it calls on students to engage in critical thinking themselves.

The first thing that students need to learn about the history of the American ideals of democracy and freedom, in my view, is that democracy and freedom are not fixed, unchanging qualities given us by the founding fathers. The meanings of democracy and freedom have often been debated; our history is the history of those debates, of battles over the way freedom and democracy should be defined—and practiced. And of course some issues are no longer debated—whether slavery is good for Africans, whether women should vote. Still, the debates about those issues—the pro-slavery argument, the argument against women's suffrage—remain a significant part of our past and ought to be part of the curriculum. (Also they can be fascinating: Should women be protected from the "filth" and "degradation" of election campaigns, as a California man argued in 1879?)


Over the past 25 years, "the new social history" has radically transformed our ideas about whose voices are part of the debate. Today, students study not only political leaders, military heroes, and captains of industry, but also working people, slaves, women, immigrants. Today, we know something about how freedom was defined by newly freed slaves in the years following the Civil War and how advocates of women's suffrage challenged the notion that "all men are created equal." Today, we teach that history is made not only by the powerful, but also by people who once were barely visible to historians—by slaves, by striking workers, by housewives.

The fruits of a comprehensive yet subtle focus on conflicting conceptions of freedom are nowhere clearer than in Eric Foner's new textbook,
Give Me Liberty. The book (which is based on his 1998 book, The Story of American Freedom) was published last summer and already has been assigned at more than 200 colleges and universities. Students should study three dimensions of freedom, Foner argues: the changing meanings of freedom; "the social conditions that make freedom possible"; and the limits of freedom in different periods, the forces that made it possible for some to enjoy freedom while others did not.

The point is not to avoid teaching about American ideals, as some critics of this approach might charge; the point is to make sure to teach about the gap between ideals and realities as well. The Declaration of Independence described liberty as an "inalienable" right, yet the founding fathers accepted the existence of slavery. The Spanish-American War was fought in the name of democracy and freedom, but it ended with a horrifying campaign of counterinsurgency against Filipinos and the establishment of American economic domination and a long-term military presence in both the Philippines and in Cuba. The debate in the 1890s between imperialist and anti-imperialist ideals, between Rudyard Kipling's "White Man's Burden" and Mark Twain's withering contempt for the war camp, takes on a striking relevance today with the Iraq war: Did we fight to bring freedom to the people of the Philippines?


The goal of teaching history through debates is not a celebration of American virtue but a more complex appreciation of changes over time in the meanings of democracy and freedom. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and to working through some of the thorny specific issues teachers and textbook writers and standard-setters face.

Best,Jon
***********************************************
From: Diane Ravitch
To: Jon Wiener
Subject: Don't Know Much About History
Posted Tuesday, May 17, 2005, at 8:12 AM PT

Dear Jon,
I approach the issues of teaching history in the schools from a somewhat different vantage point than you. Students do need to understand that the important issues in history continue to be hotly debated today by historians. Students also need to be protected from plodding textbooks that give off a phony aura of encyclopedic "truth" and that turn history into a deadly boring subject in which all the facts are already known. Students also need, to the greatest extent possible, to be able to imagine themselves into a past in which decisions were made without knowing how things would turn out.

Here are the basic problems of history in the schools today, as I see them:

One, every national assessment has shown that students don't know much history. On the authoritative
National Assessment of Educational Progress, the scores for U.S. history are consistently the lowest of any subject tested; typically more than half of seniors score "below basic," the lowest possible rating. In no other subject do a majority of students register so little knowledge of a subject taught in school. Defenders of the status quo say that students have never known much history, but that hardly seems to be an intellectually respectable response, especially if you think that history is important, as we do.

Two, in most states and most schools, history has gotten submerged and smothered by social studies. We know what history is, even if we argue about the specific issues to be included or how to interpret them. Social studies, on the other hand, is a curricular smorgasbord that includes all sorts of studies, which collectively diminish the time available for history. Social-studies teachers treat history as only one of a dozen different "studies" that they cover, and by no means the most important. Worse, they emphasize concepts and ignore chronology, which makes hash of history.

Three, because of the dominance of social studies and the diminution of history, a large percentage of people who teach history have not studied history; instead, they have majored in social-studies education, a social science, communications, or any number of other fields, but not history. Data collected by the
National Center for Education Statistics indicate that a majority of people teaching history do not have a major or a minor in history. You can understand that when the teacher does not have an in-depth knowledge of history, it is very difficult to expect him or her to have a secure grasp of complex historical issues and debates and to be able to raise probing questions of the conventional accounts.

Fourth, because of the dominance of social studies and the diminution of history, most state standards for social studies give short shrift to history. They are usually the product of the state social-studies leaders, who come from a wide variety of fields. The latest rating of state history standards was written by Sheldon Stern, historian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston (his
analysis was published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute). Stern found only six states (California, Massachusetts, New York, Arizona, Alabama, and Indiana) with exemplary history standards, where students actually encounter solid history. The history standards in 30 states were rated as weak or ineffective. Even in states with excellent standards, students may get meager history instruction. I heard today from a middle-school teacher in New York who surveyed 100 students and found that 95 of them had no knowledge of such basic facts as the capital of their state, the name of the governor, the identity of Churchill or Stalin, or when the Civil War or World War II were fought.

As our conversation proceeds, I hope we will have a chance to talk about some of the genuine problems that occur when history teachers try to incorporate the new social history. It turns out to be very difficult to teach multiple perspectives—those of housewives, feminists, slaves, workers, farmers, native Americans, free blacks in the antebellum South, Hispanics, plantation owners—when students don't have a basic grasp of the events and ideas, the scaffolding of American history. If you don't know the central events and players—the central narrative—it is difficult to understand the views and behaviors that diverge from the central narrative. How can you teach "multiple perspectives" when students don't know what happened in the first instance? Nor is it so easy to "teach the conflicts."

When we teach the Holocaust, do we give equal time to those who deny that it even happened? When we teach about McCarthyism, do we give equal time to his supporters? When we teach about the Ku Klux Klan, should there be any time for their defenders? Should there be equal time for abolitionists and pro-slavery voices? This goes to the issue of multiple perspectives, but it raises another important issue. That is, that teachers and historians who write standards need help in figuring out not only what to include but what to leave out. That is one of the most difficult issues in teaching history, and historians have not been much help to school people in differentiating what is most important from what is least important.

Best,Diane

************************************************************
From: Jon Wiener
To: Diane Ravitch
Subject: Multiple Perspectives Aren't So Hard To Deal With
Posted Wednesday, May 18, 2005, at 4:21 AM PT
Click
here to read more from Slate's History Week.

Dear Diane,
Who could disagree with your list of the problems of history in the schools? We could add that students need textbooks, and they need adequate school buildings with clean, working restrooms, roofs that don't leak, etc. "Books and Bathrooms!" has been the demand of high-school students in L.A. public schools for the last several years. All this is obvious—as is the fact that school funding is in bad shape, mostly as a result of the Republican-led attack on taxes as inherently evil. Higher taxes are necessary to pay for better schools and better teachers.


I proposed two ways of teaching history: I said we should teach multiple perspectives and teach the conflicts. You seem to think that it's too difficult to teach multiple perspectives because students don't know the basic facts. Let's get specific: How should we teach the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War? (I'm thinking here about high-school juniors and seniors and college students. Obviously they need to know the basic facts—the South seceded, the North went to war initially to preserve the Union, but eventually Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, etc.) Students think history is "boring" because they are taught only facts. But the facts get interesting when they are part of a conflict between different perspectives.

You seem to think this approach won't work because we have too many "perspectives"—you list nine. But in the case of Reconstruction, the number of relevant perspectives is not that big. I focus on three, the three most significant: the Northern Radicals, who shaped federal policy and who wanted to bring the former slaves into the economy of the free market, as wage earners, and into the political system, as voters; the Southern planter elite, who wanted to preserve as much of the old plantation labor system as possible; and the former slaves themselves. Their understanding of freedom was, as Eric Foner has written, "shaped by their experiences as slaves."

Freedom for them meant freedom to work for themselves—economic autonomy and access to land. This argument shows the freedmen defining their own interests, in conflict with the federal government, which claimed to represent them. Thus instead of giving students a list of facts and dates to memorize, I would ask them to conceive of what's happening as a three-sided conflict over the meaning of freedom.

By that, I don't mean a broad-brush treatment that leaves students clueless about the details on the ground. To understand that conflict, they need to know about Radical Reconstruction, the plantation system, blacks' experiences of slavery, and the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution—but viewed with a bigger framework in mind, the mass of information acquires meaning, and students can make connections. And they can see contrasts: They recognize how history was made in different ways by different groups. That might seem "very difficult" to you, but students end up learning not just about what happened during Reconstruction, but about how history itself gets reconstructed. The organizing theme—freedom—has intrinsic interest, whereas a mass of data and dates can quickly become meaningless.

In your response to my argument about teaching the conflicts, you asked whether I meant we should make Holocaust-denial part of the curriculum. If this is a serious question, the answer is no. But let's take a legitimate example: You ask whether, when we teach the conflicts and we teach about McCarthyism, we should teach about McCarthy's supporters. The only "supporter" of Joe McCarthy on the scene today is Ann Coulter, and her writings don't belong in the history classroom. But I think it's essential for students to ask why people supported McCarthy, why Eisenhower and the Republican Party waited so long before condemning him.

The answers require students to learn about the Cold War and the way it was framed for Americans as a conflict between "freedom" and "slavery"; the way that framework defined people who could be linked to the Communist Party as "enemies of freedom"; the way spy trials amplified an atmosphere of fear; the way the Democrats, led by Truman, joined in the hunt for "subversives." Students should try to distinguish between legitimate concerns about espionage and political exploitation of the issue. And they should also look at Republicans who didn't wait to challenge McCarthy, like Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and her famous "Declaration of Conscience," where she stated, "Surely we Republicans aren't that desperate for victory." Finally, it's worthwhile to compare and contrast the wave of political repression that followed World War I with that following World War II in terms of restrictions on First Amendment freedoms. And we should urge that students look to contemporary comparisons in the post-9/11 world as well. Since historians disagree about all these issues, we need to "teach the conflicts."

Traditionalists argue that this kind of teaching the conflicts means teaching relativism, when we should be teaching the truth; I think the truth is that historians disagree. Traditionalists say that this kind of teaching multiple perspectives leads to the fragmentation of history and the abandonment of any central theme. I say the central theme here is freedom. I'm eager to see where you stand on these arguments.

Best,Jon
****************************************
From: Diane Ravitch
To: Jon Wiener
Subject: The Glut of Unqualified History Teachers
Posted Wednesday, May 18, 2005, at 10:01 AM PT

Dear Jon,

I am flabbergasted that you think that the lack of well-educated history teachers is a problem equivalent to not having a working bathroom. Our topic is not whether the budgets of schools are adequate or whether enough money is spent on maintenance. We are talking about teaching history.

It is great to have wonderful ideas about how students can explore the conflicts in history—of course, they should. But how can a teacher lead this kind of in-depth study if the teacher doesn't know much history? Don't you think the qualifications of history teachers bear some relationship to what happens in the history classroom?

The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (1998) show that 55.6 percent of those who teach two or more classes of social studies in grades 9-12 do not have either a major or a minor in history. (There is no reason to believe that the situation has improved since these data were collected.) The only field in which such a large proportion of teachers are teaching "out of field" (i.e., lacking either a minor or major in the subject they are teaching) is the physical sciences.

How is someone with a degree in secondary-school administration or physical education or journalism likely to teach history when they are assigned to do it? They will stick closely to the textbook. The typical high-school textbook allots five to 10 pages to Reconstruction. One textbook devotes 23 pages to the subject, but nearly half that space is filled with pictures and sidebars, not text. U.S. history textbooks are not typically devoted to "teaching the conflict" or to in-depth consideration of controversial questions. Better textbooks would help, but the best way to improve history teaching is to have teachers who have studied history and know how to deal with complex issues and how to find primary sources and use them well.

You seem to think I have a problem with teaching anything more than facts and dates. You are wrong. I wrote the section in the California history framework on teaching Reconstruction that says:
Students should analyze how events during and after Reconstruction raised and then dashed the hopes of black Americans for full equality. They should understand how the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution were undermined by the courts and political interests. They should learn how slavery was replaced by black peonage, segregation, Jim Crow laws, and other legal restrictions on the rights of blacks, capped by the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 ("separate but equal"). Racism prevailed, enforced by lynch mobs, the Ku Klux Klan, and popular sentiment. Students should also understand the connection between these amendments and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Although undermined by the courts a century ago, these amendments became the basis for all civil rights progress in the twentieth century.

This raises the issues, but here too it takes a well-educated teacher to bring these developments to life, to enable students to understand the connection among events, and to truly grasp the importance of the post-Civil War constitutional amendments.

Of course, freedom and democracy should be at the center of teaching U.S. history. That is why I disagree with your characterization of the issues in the Cold War period. Certainly students should learn that McCarthy trampled on people's civil rights, and they should learn why many people in his era (not Ann Coulter, in our time) supported him, and also why the U.S. Senate voted to condemn him.

But if freedom and democracy truly are at the center of the curriculum, then students must learn that the Soviet Union was a cruel, repressive society that trampled on the rights of its people, that maintained a vast network of prison camps for dissidents, that did not permit free elections or an independent judiciary or a free press or freedom of speech. As part of an American history course, students need to see how foreign events relate to domestic ones; they need to understand the rise of the dictatorships in Germany, Russia, and Japan as background for comprehending America's role in World War II. You might suggest to "teach the conflict" by assigning Stalin's writings, but I would hope teachers would find time to assign writings by such people as Andrei Sakharov, Nadezhda Mandelstam, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, as well as histories like Robert Conquest's The Great Terror and Anne Applebaum's Gulag.

The Cold War was about a lot more than McCarthyism and events on the home front; it was a sustained struggle between liberal democracy and totalitarianism. If students don't understand that, they won't understand much about the most important events of the 20th century. Vladimir Putin said the other day that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. Now, that would make a fascinating subject to debate in an American history or world history classroom!

I agree that the central theme in teaching history is freedom. Ideally I would like to see both U.S. history and world history taught from that perspective. But there is no getting away from the fact that teachers will not be able to bring the study of history to life unless they know enough history to get beyond whatever the textbook says.
Diane
***********************************************
From: Jon Wiener
To: Diane Ravitch

Subject: The Different Ways of Teaching About Freedom
Posted Thursday, May 19, 2005, at 4:30 AM PT
Click
here to read more from Slate's History Week.

Dear Diane,
When Slate readers heard you announce that you "agree that the central theme in teaching history is freedom," they may well have concluded that of the many conflicts that need to be taught in American history, maybe the confrontation between historians like you and me wasn't so prominent after all. But as we wind down our discussion, I want to emphasize just how different the approaches entailed by that same thematic focus can be—and what different light they can shed on the U.S. and its role in the world.

Let me start by saying that though it may surprise you, I agree that students should learn about the Stalinist system, the purges and the gulags (though I'll confess I've never thought about assigning Stalin's writings to students; I'm not sure writing was Stalin's forte). But when we teach World War II, which you mention, we need to let students know that the Soviet Union was an ally of the U.S. We should try to understand why Time named Stalin "Man of the Year" in 1940. We should teach that the turning point in the defeat of Hitler was not the Normandy landings, but rather the Battle of Stalingrad, and that the Russians had 20 million deaths in World War II while the U.S. had 400,000.
The Cold War has a way of distorting what came before. One example is the
recent statement in Riga by President Bush that, at Yalta, FDR somehow failed to ensure the freedom of Eastern Europe. As Arthur Schlesinger explained on the Huffington Post, Bush doesn't seem to know that Eastern Europe in January 1945 was occupied by the Red Army. "No conceivable diplomacy could have saved Eastern Europe from Soviet occupation," Schlesinger explained. "And military action against the Soviet Union was inconceivable so long as the Pacific War was still going on." At the time the atom bomb had not been tested; we needed the USSR to join the war against Japan, which Stalin at Yalta promised to do in August. But maybe Bush's ignorance is not really his fault; maybe his high-school history teacher was the football coach.

Of course the use of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki raises other questions. Japan had offered to surrender, but not the "unconditional surrender" the U.S. demanded; was this demand justified? To what extent was the bomb intended as a signal to Stalin? How and why did the Allies move from condemning attacks on civilian populations at the beginning of the war to making such attacks crucial to the Allied strategy for victory? These are immensely rich and significant issues where we need to teach the conflicts. Such issues inevitably complicate any simple vision of America's role and allegiance to certain principles.

You say "freedom" should be the central theme not only in our teaching of U.S. history, but also world history. I agree: It's important for students to learn that the Cold War ideology dividing the world between "free" and "slave" peoples concealed the way American power shored up dictatorships in the Third World: Diem in Vietnam, Somoza in Nicaragua, the Shah in Iran, Saddam during the 1980s—and we might draw parallels in the post-Cold War world to U.S. support for Musharraf in Pakistan today. In other words, teaching about freedom in the world means teaching that the U.S. has often been an enemy of freedom.

You may reply that this approach amounts to demonizing America. But is it "anti-American" to teach students about the ways freedom has been denied and limited in our past? In some ways this is the biggest question of all on which historians disagree. Once again fairness requires that we make that question part of the curriculum—that we teach that conflict, too.
Jon
****************************************
From: Diane Ravitch
To: Jon Wiener
Subject: The National History Standards Stalemate
Posted Thursday, May 19, 2005, at 11:03 AM PT

Dear Jon,
Your belief that American schoolchildren need to learn that America "has often been an enemy of freedom" reminds me of an earlier, celebrated effort to teach American history with a negative emphasis.

When I became assistant secretary of education in 1991 in the first Bush administration, almost the first thing that I did was to urge federal funding of national history standards. Before I went into government, I had been working on various fronts to reverse the long decline of history education in the schools. In my new position, I was able to persuade the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities to make a grant to the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA to write voluntary national history standards. UCLA was chosen because it was home to Charlotte Crabtree, with whom I had worked closely in drafting the politically balanced and historically solid framework for teaching history in the schools of California, adopted by the State Board of Education in 1988 (and still in place).

Charlotte Crabtree was not a historian, so she invited Gary Nash to serve as her deputy. Nash is a prominent historian whose views and sympathies are decidedly to the left of center. He was unquestionably the dominant influence on the standards, which were eventually published in the fall of 1994. A few weeks before the release of the standards, they were attacked by Lynne Cheney in the Wall Street Journal for their negativism and political bias, and a great national furor ensued. Many right-wing commentators savaged the standards, but the standards were also criticized by major historians like Walter McDougall and John Patrick Diggins, as well as by teachers-union leader Albert Shanker, none of whom were men of the right. At that time, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and I joined to write an opinion piece urging that the standards be revised, not scrapped. In January 1995, the United States Senate voted 99-1 to reject the UCLA standards (the lone dissenter was a senator from Louisiana who apparently thought that the Senate's disapproval was not strong enough). Even a nonpartisan review by a large panel of historians (on which I served) concluded that the standards presented "a disproportionately pessimistic and misrepresentative picture of the American past."

I mention this past history because your comments evoke the earlier controversy. You want history to be taught to schoolchildren as it would be taught by left-wing professors in the university. That may in fact happen at present in some classrooms, but the fate of the UCLA standards suggests that it is not going to get a stamp of approval by any state school board, let alone the U.S. Congress.

You seem fearful that students in history classes are getting an immersion in patriotism. I doubt that this is happening either in high-school or in university classes. If you were to read the leading textbooks (such as those by Gary Nash), you would find that they are devoid of patriotism and that they consistently include descriptions of our nation's errors, misdeeds, and flaws. If they don't dwell on the dark side, they don't dwell on the bright side either. If they only mention the negative, rather than dwell on it, it is because textbooks are characterized by superficial mentioning. Let me reassure you that if students are patriotic, it is not because of anything that they encounter in their history classes.

My sense from your latest response is that you really want to argue about current politics, not about teaching history in the schools. There is no reason for us to agree about contemporary political issues, but there is a great argument to be made for people like us agreeing to ignore those differences and to focus on the importance of reviving history teaching in the schools. If historians continue to quarrel and engage in the culture wars with each other, another generation of American schoolchildren will arrive in college with hardly a clue about any of the major events and ideas in our nation's history or in the history of the world.

I end our discussion somewhat confused about what you mean by "teaching the conflicts." You know that there are not going to be any serious debates in high-school classrooms about whether slavery was or was not a good thing; we know that it was not, and we would be horrified if our students thought otherwise. You know that we are not going to give credibility to Holocaust deniers under the flag of "teaching the conflict." I assume that you would not give equal time to critics of evolution or proponents of flat-earth theories. You know quite well that teachers today are not going to be even-handed in teaching about McCarthyism or the Ku Klux Klan or Nazism. By "teach the conflicts," I think you mean teach students how historians disagree. Or maybe you mean teach the different sides of issues as they occurred at the time. I am no longer sure what you mean.

You should really become engaged in the problems and realities of the history classroom. You should be concerned about the meager state requirements that permit so many people who have not studied history to teach it; about the textbooks that turn history into a boring subject; about the awful state standards in social studies that marginalize history; and about the difficulty of restoring history to its rightful importance in the curriculum of elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. If you do this, I think you might agree with me about the need for historians to rise above ideological squabbles and join with others who have been trying for the past generation to reverse this sorry situation.
Diane

Diane Ravitch is research professor of education at New York University and is the author of
The Language Police. She was the primary writer for the California History/Social Science Framework adopted by the State Board of Education in 1988 and has served as consultant for history curriculum to several other states. Jon Wiener is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, a contributing editor of the Nation, and is the author, most recently, of Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower. Article URL: http://slate.msn.com/id/2118427/
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"What luck for rulers that men do not think" - Adolf Hitler


“Nations whose NATIONALISM is destroyed are subject to ruin.” - Colonel Muhammar Qaddafi, 1942-, Libyan Political and Military Leader"

We shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to enquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know..." - SOCRATES

"Upang maitindig natin ang bantayog ng ating lipunan, kailangang radikal nating baguhin hindi lamang ang ating mga institusyon kundi maging ang ating pag-iisip at pamumuhay. Kailangan ang rebolusyon, hindi lamang sa panlabas, kundi lalo na sa panloob!" --Apolinario Mabini, La Revolucion Filipina (1898)

2 comments :

dante said...

Hello there. :)

I would just like to say that I aprreciate this (or your) blog very much. I share your sentiment that we, each and every one of us Filipinos, need to cultivate our minds to think critically by reading and knowing history, and learning natinalism and nationalist ideas. Thus we can start to effect real changes in our society and nation...

Please do continue posting in this blog. More power to you and God bless.

Bert M. Drona said...

Thanks for your encouraging response. Rest assured that I will continue to do my blogging about our homeland. That's the least I can do for our compatriots to help raise nationalistic consciousness.

I would appreciate your passing/forwarding any posting that you like to concerned friends and relatives especially in the homeland. Take care