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The Reason Lynne Cheney Had 300,000 History Booklets Destroyed

"Imagine that you wake up one morning to find out you have no memory!" Coming from an administration that wants Americans to forget its original rationale for going to war in Iraq or that President Bush ever met former Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay, you might think that this is more a wish than a suggestion. In fact, it's the beginning of a newly revised pamphlet from the Department of Education entitled "Helping Your Child Learn History."

Like other aspects of recent history that the Bush administration wants the public to forget, Vice President Cheney's wife Lynne has gotten the government to stuff this booklet down the memory-hole. According to theLos Angeles Times, the Department of Education destroyed more than 300,000 copies of this pamphlet after Cheney's office complained that it mentioned the National Standards for United States History, a controversial set of teaching guidelines developed ten years ago at UCLA. However, a version of the booklet with these references expunged is available at the Department of Education's homepage.

As is the case with so much of today's politics, a little history lesson is in order. Lynne Cheney was the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities during the administration of George H.W. Bush. In that capacity she actually championed the creation of national standards for teaching history, and helped fund this project.

However, after the release of the final version of the standards, Cheney changed her mind. As the Times explains, at that time she argued "that the standards were not positive enough about America's achievements and paid too little attention to figures such as Gen. Robert E. Lee, Paul Revere and Thomas Edison. At one point in the initial controversy, Cheney denounced the standards as 'politicized history.' "

The Times goes on to explain that even though Mrs. Cheney's office helped in the development of the booklet, Education Department staff added references to the standards after her office had reviewed an initial draft.

The cost of the junked booklets, $110,360, is certainly one reason to be disturbed by this decision. And, of course, the failure to include any mention of the standards in the new version of the booklet is undoubtedly an act of political censorship. (References to many of Mrs. Cheney's works on history education remain in the guide.)

Nevertheless, if anything good is good to come out of this story, it ought to be increased attention for an excellent piece of instructional literature. In fact, the insights contained in "Helping Your Child Learn History" are more than enough to construct a counterargument to Mrs. Cheney's positions, both ten years ago and today.

For example, the Times recalls that during the initial controversy, Cheney pointed out that "The standards contained repeated references to the Ku Klux Klan and to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the anti-Communist demagogue of the 1950s . . . And she noted that Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who helped run the Underground Railroad, was mentioned six times."

As if in response to this line of reasoning, the authors of the booklet write, "The history with which we are most familiar is political history--the story of war and peace, important leaders and changes of government. But history is more than that. Anything that has a past has a history, including ideas, such as the idea of freedom, and cultural activities, such as music, art or architecture."

Why then did Cheney count specific references to historical figures in the standards? Because she and her conservative allies were more concerned about what students learned rather than whether they learned history at all. On the other hand, the booklet suggests that "In-depth study of a few important events gives [children] a chance to understand the many sides of a story."

In fact, "Helping Your Child Learn History" is remarkably sophisticated in the way that it encourages parents (and by extension their children) to assess the validity of particular sources. The pamphlet explains that "There are many possible stories about the same event, and there are good storytellers and less good storytellers. Very rarely does one story say it all or any one storyteller 'get it right.' " If only the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth could understand this concept!

The issue of multiple points of view gets to the very heart of Cheney's opposition to the national history standards. As Harvey Kaye explained in 1995, the standards were "truly reflective of contemporary historical scholarship and practice--and, presumably, for conservatives that is the problem. Indeed, the standards produced for American history should rile conservatives quite a bit given their intense hostility to the critical historiographies crafted since the 1960s." Limiting access to the standards, therefore, not only harms the ability of students to make analytical judgments, it makes it harder for them to read points of view with which Cheney disagrees.

At the time the standards were first produced, conservative icon Rush Limbaugh declared, "History is real simple. You know what history is? It's what happened." Historians should welcome "Helping Your Child Learn History" because it serves as counterweight to this common misconception. It recognizes that history is complex, and it encourages parents to teach their children to think analytically about history from an early age. The more parents who read this booklet and follow its advice, the easier our jobs will be when they reach college.

So let's hope the next wife of the next vice president of the United States allows the Department of Education to do its job.

Related Links

  • Michael Bérubé: 1997 Review of Lynne Cheney’s Attack on the National History Standards (Nation)