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Run Down by Traffic in Both Directions: Is it Possible to Have a Rational Discussion of State U.S. History Standards?

In late 2009, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute asked us to undertake a review of state standards for U.S. history.  One of us (1) had written the last state standards report for Fordham in 2003; and, since forty-five states have subsequently revised their standards, it seemed appropriate to see what had changed.  Some states had modified their standards a great deal—some for the better, some for the worse.  On balance, the picture remained grim:  twenty-eight states rated a D or an F, and the average grade was a D. (2)

It is essential for the reader to understand one question at the outset:  What exactly are state history standards?  Standards are, or should be, the substantive guidelines for determining what a state intends (or at least hopes) its young people will know when they complete various grade levels.  Clear and rigorous standards are the foundation upon which state history curricula, student assessments, and teacher training should be built.  Standards do not limit what a teacher can teach or students can learn any more than a building code restricts the freedom of an architect.  U.S. history standards should simply establish a reasonable and acceptable minimum level of content expectations to help insure that teachers and students share a common core of knowledge about our nation’s history.

The strongest and most effective standards offer coherent, chronologically-based overviews of historical content, a progressively more sophisticated sequence of content across grade levels, and an emphasis on real people and critical events.  In short, they provide both teachers and students with a clear sense of the core material to be taught and learned, helping teachers structure their courses and giving students (and their parents) an understanding of what public school students are expected to know.

The weakest and least useful standards submerge history in an amorphous maze of ahistorical social studies themes and categories, minimize real people and specific events, make broad generalizations with random and decontextualized examples, and rely on edu-jargon and confusing social studies charts and tables.  The weakest history standards sometimes even fail to mention any actual human beings.

Historical understanding, of course, is vital if young Americans are to learn how societies evolve, how ideas and beliefs change and interact—in short, what makes people people, and how the world we live in came to be.  How else can students come to understand what essayist L.P. Hartley meant when he declared, “The past is a foreign country:  they do things differently there”?

Nonetheless, at the college level, American history requirements are an endangered species.  While history courses are widely available, and are in many cases quite popular, basic requirements—mandatory core surveys—are vanishing.  Fewer and fewer schools require American history, or any history at all, as part of the undergraduate general education curriculum.  A 2009 study revealed that none of the twenty “top” American universities, from Brown through Yale, required undergraduates to study U.S. history.  Likewise, of the twenty “top” liberal arts colleges, from Amherst through Williams, only one required the study of American history.  Finally, of the “Sixty State Flagship Institutions,” from the University of Alabama through the University of Wyoming, only ten required American history at the undergraduate level. (3)

Indeed, a decade before the release of these disquieting findings, 81 percent of seniors from our top fifty-five colleges and universities failed a test of basic U.S. history questions drawn from a national exam designed for high school seniors.  Only 22 percent knew, for example, that the words “government of the people, by the people, for the people” came from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  If most American youngsters don’t learn about their nation’s history in the K-12 years, they are unlikely ever to learn about it. (4)

We had no fantasies that our findings would be welcomed by education officials in underperforming states.  Rather, we assumed that they would dismiss our conclusions as unfair, misinformed, or ideologically motivated.  And, indeed, some state officials and their allies promptly responded in entirely predictable ways: the methodological justifications found in their standards all but predetermined what they would say.  In fact, we could easily have written their responses for them. 

They denigrate our emphasis on core, substantive knowledge as a petty focus on “trivia.”  They claim that we ignore “historical thinking,” painting us as reactionary purveyors of an archaic rote memorization curriculum.  They insist that offering specifics restricts “flexibility” and stifles teachers.  They complain that we wish only history to be taught, with the other social studies subject areas—principally geography, economics and government—pushed aside.  (In fact, we only object to having geographic, economic and governmental aspects of history arbitrarily split off into separate “strands” or courses, and stripped in the process of historical context and coherence.)

Of course we are not, as our opponents smugly insist, demanding tedious lists of names or insisting on rote recitation in classrooms.  In fact, we could hardly have been more explicit in rejecting such empty approaches; in reality, it is the worst social studies standards that offer dry and decontextualized lists of “suggested examples,” names and events!  Historical comprehension—and, yes, historical thinking, properly understood—is the core of what we sought.  But, historical knowledge is the essential foundation for historical thinking.  Too often, the defenders of social studies speak as if one must choose between one or the other.  But how can you think about history without first knowing the history to think about?

In no case did we praise bare lists of facts:  instead we looked for coherent outlines that explain what happened and why.  It is for that reason that we singled out South Carolina’s standards as the best in the country, the only state to earn a straight A.  The state’s superb expository “support documents,” which supplement and expand upon its standards outline, are notable precisely because they go so far beyond mere lists, offering comprehensive and sophisticated explanation of historical issues, problems and ideas.  But South Carolina was not alone in valuing substantive, content-rich guidance for its teachers:  ten states scored in the A or B range.

Treating fundamental factual knowledge as a petty, narrow, and confining obstacle to deeper “thinking” reduces history education to empty platitudes.  Strong substantive standards are a tool for teachers, to help them structure their own unique courses.  If, on the other hand, students are exposed only to vague and general “concepts” about historical events they may or may not have learned about, they will only come away with banal and soon-forgotten generalizations.

Some also attacked our emphasis on chronology:  history, they say, should be thematic, because that makes it more “relevant” to today’s learners.  We, obviously, disagree.  The “relevance” argument hinges on the notion that, with a thematic approach, you can pick and choose particular bits of history that relate to currently fashionable issues.  Picking and choosing “related” subject matter, bundling together disparate content from disconnected times according to arbitrary thematic groupings—in their most extreme form, thematic standards even lump together such events as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the Vietnam War simply because they are all wars—makes nonsense of causality, development, and the complex interconnections between contemporary events.  The essence of the “relevance” argument is that such an approach is more engaging to students—yet students seem alarmingly dismissive of such history courses at all levels.  They would almost certainly respond more favorably to the drama, power and excitement of real people and real events in real historical context—just as the reading public overwhelmingly seeks out compelling historical narratives (which explains the appeal of writers like David McCullough, Edmund Morris, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Ellis, and David Hackett Fisher).

It was also entirely predictable that the left-leaning defenders of social studies would dismiss our findings as those of reactionary troglodytes.  But of course, they conveniently ignore the fact that we also harshly criticized the distortion of history by the political right.  Those on the right, in turn, accuse us of being dark agents of the left.  In fact, as we took care to point out in our report, most political bias in state standards continues to come from the left—it is, indeed, bound up with the presentistic, “relevance” emphasis on modern-day values and concerns that is so deeply embedded in social studies.  We also note that there has been some retreat from blatant political correctness since 2003:  leftist bias certainly remains, but has become more subtle.  Still, we called it out where we found it—and we found it frequently.

Now, however, the highly publicized battle over the Texas standards has opened a new front:  rather than rejecting leftist bias and moving towards honest and sophisticated balance (as, for example, the quite conservative state of South Carolina admirably does), some right-wing groups wish simply to replace liberal bias with their own political shibboleths.

Our criticism of the historical distortions in the new Texas standards has received a significant amount of media attention in the Lone Star State and has spurred some calls to reopen the revision process.  But, as with the defenders of social studies, the response of the supporters of the standards has been equally predictable—scoffing at Washington “elitists” trying to tell Texans how to do things.  Some have gone a good deal further, accusing us and Fordham of being part a vast conspiracy to humiliate Texas.  And, like all conspiracy theorists, they twist our factual findings beyond recognition, putting ridiculous words into our mouths and denouncing all contrary arguments as malicious “lies.” (5)

State standards will not, of course, guarantee successful classrooms and educated students.  But laying out coherent, sophisticated and balanced expectations is an essential first step towards achieving those aims.  As Thomas Jefferson warned, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, … it expects what never was and never will be.” (6)

(1) Sheldon M. Stern, Effective State Standards for U.S. History: a 2003 Report Card.

(2) Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia have published K-12 standards in U.S. history. Rhode Island, which seems to relish its contrarian reputation—it was the first colony to declare independence from Britain but the last to ratify the Constitution—remains the only state without U.S. history standards.  Our recent study is part of  the Fordham Institute’s  reassessment of standards in the core educational subjects: reading, math, science, and U.S. history.   

(3)  What Will They Learn?: A Report of General Education Requirements at 100 of the Nation’s Leading Colleges and Universities, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2009.

(4)Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2000.

(5) The conspiracy theory posits a plot, initiated by the Obama White House and Bill Gates’s charitable foundation, to “punish” Texas, because it refuses to knuckle under to the proposed national Common Core standards—part, they say, of the administration’s insidious plan to take over our schools.  Common Core is strongly supported by the administration’s Race to the Top, but it is a voluntary program —and does not even include history standards.

Claims that we have “lied” focus particularly on our criticism of Texas’s handling of slavery, which is barely discussed in the standards prior to the Civil War, and is then deftly subordinated in importance to “states’ rights” as the cause of the conflict.  Texas’s Liberty Institute responded by doing a search for the word “slavery” in the document and triumphantly declaring that the standards do mention it… though, ironically, the quotes they produced demonstrate the very historical flaws we described (flaws also pointedly noted by Rod Paige, George W. Bush’s first secretary of education, and hardly a liberal shill).  Likewise, angrily rejecting our criticism that the history of separation of church and state was dismissed and distorted in the standards, the Liberty Institute jubilantly declared, after another word search, that the phrase does indeed appear in the standards—yet the passage which they produced to refute our claim is again the very passage to which we referred in the first place!  Yes, it does mention the concept of separation, but only to insinuate that it is a historical myth (a position Texas’s State Board of Education members took openly in their public hearings on the standards).  And so it goes.

(6) Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816.