The most important thing to know about this volume is that its authors were the principal formulators of the infamous National History Standards of 1995. The United States Senate was so dismayed by the History Standards that it voted 99 to I to reject the efforts of this trio of historians from UCLA. History on Trial is an attempt to re-visit the History Standards debate and show how “ultra-right wingers” managed to dupe the public and sabotage the authors’ “moderate” standards.

A little background may be a useful antidote to History on Trial. By the late I980’s, many Americans were calling for reform of the history curriculum. A critical event in the movement toward curriculum reform occurred when education professors Chester Finn, Jr., and Diane Ravitch published What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?: A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature (1987). Drawing upon a standardized history test administered to over 8,000 students, the report showed in alarming detail just how poorly many K-12 teachers were doing when it came to teaching historical studies. The one “positive” showing was that this historical ignorance cut broadly across boundaries of race and sex.

A few examples from their study will demonstrate the depth of the problem: only one-third of high school seniors could date the founding of Jamestown as occurring before 1750; less than a third could place the Civil War within the era of 1850 to 1900 or connect the Reformation with the formation of Protestant sects; four-fifths failed to associate “Reconstruction” with the post-Civil War South or the “Progressive Era” with pre- World War I reform. Even long-standing cliches went unidentified. Only 50 percent of surveyed students could name the person who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Finally, only a third managed to link the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal” with the Declaration of Independence.

The general public, recognizing that something awful had transpired in education in the years since most of them had attended high school, was appalled. Those of us teaching college survey classes in American history, however, were hardly surprised. Almost any semester would confirm the results of the Finn and Ravitch experiment. But with the publication of What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, history teachers at all levels finally possessed the hard evidence needed to declare that the “feel good” methodologies developed in recent decades by professional educationists had not only failed to improve students’ grasp on historical learning but had created an intellectual wasteland in the attempt. The observation in the halls of higher education that college professors were often expected to teach courses dumbed-down to the level of a good high school history class from the 1950’s, or earlier, became commonplace.

Many historians, including a substantial number of conservatives, concluded that standards should be developed to set historical education on track again. Surely, there existed a core of objective facts related to history (or any other subject for that matter) that an educated American could be expected to know. This was admittedly an old-fashioned approach to education, pushing most complex arguments of interpretation back to advanced undergraduate or graduate-level courses and testing first-year students primarily on verifiable facts. Thus, the opening years of the history standards movement seemed to offer hope: educational leaders, as well as the public, finally had decided to confront the reality of widespread historical ignorance.

What was surprising in the early years of the history standards debate was the naïveté of conservatives, many of whom supposed that the historical and educational professions, long dominated by extreme leftists, would abandon their professed intent to employ history as a means in the creation of a brave new world. Practicing historians on the left saw history standards as a powerful weapon with which to force a leftist version of history upon an unsuspecting audience. Factual content under the UCLA History Standards was far less important to them than politically correct interpretations were. Those of us who belong to the Joe Friday school of historiography (“Just the facts, ma’am”) are frequently ridiculed in History on Trial and compared with Mr. Gradgrind at the opening of his school in Dickens’ Hard Times: “Now what I want is the facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but the facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. . . . This is the principle upon which I bring up my own children. Stick to the facts, sir.” For the academic left, of course, it is interpretation, not factual content, which reigns supreme. And History on Trial never lets slip just how deep is the lack of factual understanding on the part of American students. One would think that Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn were addressing medieval peasants in their condescending assertion that facts and interpretations are two separate and distinct ways of teaching. In reality, a knowledge of events precedes interpretation of those same events; indeed, the greater the factual understanding of an incident, the less likely that an historian will be able to distort the event’s history, since facts have a way—often disconcerting—of grounding readers in reality.

By the early 1990’s, the great history standards hijack was well under way. When grant money was awarded and the project fell into the hands of the three from UCLA, the leftist bias of the final document became a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the first version of their standards proved so extreme that the Gang of Three was compelled to revise this document, the most important change being to uncouple the classroom examples from the standards themselves. In most eases the actual standards or goals, delineated by historical eras and student grade levels, are sufficiently vague that both liberals or conservatives will find little to dispute in them. However, it is in the examples section of the standards that a leftist bias remains evident—and without the examples, the History Standards are of little use to teachers.

Thus the major criticisms of the standards as a whole were directed against the examples section, from which the names of numerous prominent Americans were omitted and where an ultraleft-wing tilt was perceptible overall. (Richard Nixon, for example, is presented as an omnipresent, satanic being in the part dealing with the post-World War II era.) At the time, though, I was more concerned with factual errors than with simple bias. Writing in 1995, Forrest McDonald, one the leading historians of the constitutional era of American history, claimed to have found “nine major errors, not to mention a total lack of understanding or familiarity with modern scholarship,” on one page alone of the History Standards proposal.

For an idea of how the revised standards are supposed to work, let us look at Standard 2A, which asks students in grades seven and eight to evaluate the significance of Columbus’s voyage and assess his relations with indigenous peoples. The example asks students to respond to the question: “How, for example, did Columbus’s description of the playful and pleasant nature of the Carib Indians contrast with his treatment of them?” This is either another error on the part of the authors or a fairly clever trick question. On his voyages, Columbus encountered two distinct indigenous peoples—the Arawaks and the Caribs. He described the former as peaceful, gentle folk who would make ideal slaves or servants. In contrast, the Caribs were hostile from the moment of first contact, and Columbus argued that they might have to be exterminated. In my classes at the University of Toledo, I often use Columbus’s view of the Arawaks and Caribs to make a general statement about history. Today, the peaceful, gentle Arawaks no longer exist, but the difficult Caribs continue to plague potential masters in the region—most recently the Sandinistas of Nicaragua. Errors such as confusing the Caribs and Arawaks are inexcusable—they are not matters of opinion, but constitute the historical record.

Haing provoked so much attention in the popular press, the issue of National History Standards then faded away, possibly leading readers of History on Trial to believe that it had all been rightwing hoopla about minor differences. And though the federal government rejected the standards, many local school districts went ahead and adopted them anyway. The standards and the accompany ing text have sold well. Those who continue to battle the national standards are still dismissed as “ultra-rightists” — the term used throughout History on Trial to describe the project’s critics. All moderates, one is led to believe, will agree that the standards are balanced, multicultural, and forward-looking.

Parents whose children are having the history standards foisted upon them need to read the detailed criticisms that are available, such as the Spring 1995 number of Continuity, which the editors devoted entirely to “A Critique of the National History Standards.” In that symposium Forrest McDonald writes, “If the historical revisionists have their way, the entire heritage of Western Civilization will be swept away, and traditional American values will be consigned to the scrap heap.” Like McDonald I believe that while such a catastrophe is unlikely to occur, in the short run we may expect continued academic unpleasantness and—what is worse—continued historical illiteracy. Big Brother is out there, waiting in the wings to take over your local school board. Beware.


[History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past, by Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 318 pp., $26.00]