A Question of Intent
A panel convened by the Council for Basic Education has found the
National Standards for U. S. History "reasonable;" their
objections concern merely the actual teaching examples. In other
words, the principles are laudable - it is only their translation
into practice which had gone awry.
Yet it is precisely the translation into practice that tells the
real story. As a young boy in Hungary, I remember the Stalinists'
Constitution (vintage 1949) which opened by vesting all power in
the people and continued to set forth all things good and virtuous
to be experienced henceforth throughout the land. The practice,
as it actually unfolded, began with the suppression of all political
parties, continued with laying mines along the borders, and reached
maturity with the nightly deportation to destinations unknown of
people for the crime of, say, having owned a small grocery store.
In its review of the CBE report, the Los Angeles Times
quoted the author of the Standards, Gary Nash, as saying that "the
intent of the examples was to provide teachers with many active
learning activities [sic] and strategies for bringing history alive..."
If anyone is in doubt about the real intent behind the new National
Standards for United States History, published as part of "Goals
2000," the images of its fifty-five illustrations provide insight.
They illustrate, indeed, how the authors use the term "standard"
to cover up their true objective, which is to do away with standards
- and with history - altogether.
A great pity, that. Whereas school children in other lands grow
up imbued with legends handed down before the emergence of written
history, American teachers have a real story to tell: that of the
American Founding which - in the absence of common ethnic or religious
roots - is the central binding agent in the fabric of this country.
Images, such as George Washington at Valley Forge or the title page
of Common Sense, which form an inalienable part of this glue, are
fixed in the memory of every adult American. They are also known
to people all over the world. I even encountered them in textbooks
while attending school in (Stalinist!) Hungary.
But, as the fifty-five illustrations of the Standards attest, these
same images will not be communicated to future generations of Americans.
Of the total of fifty-five plates which adorn the Standards, twenty-two
have little, if anything, to do with the subject matter. Examples
include "Mural, Centro Cultural de La Raza" and "Teacher
Gloria Sasso with students." Eighteen depict what I am compelled
to label "America the Horrible." In this category, we
encounter the Ku Klux Klan on parade (more than once), and "Time
Table of the Lowell Mills." Three of the images are unidentified
(sailing ship - from where and when?), which leaves a mere 12 of
55, or about 20%, which may be considered appropriate - though even
some of these are debatable.
There are no pictures of great leaders or epoch-making inventors.
The missing images identify the goals of the authors even more clearly
than the illustrations they chose. Much has been said and written
about their intention to 'restore balance.' But history is not a
TV talk show. There are people, events, and ideas which have shaped
the country in which we live. What was and what was not of primary
importance is not a matter of personal opinion or of gender/racial
balance. We have come to dwell in towns and cities, as opposed to
tents or huts; we have availed ourselves of trains, automobiles
and airplanes, as opposed to horses; we run our surroundings with
electrical, as opposed to manual, power. Above all, we adopted a
peaceful transition of power, and a steadily growing proportion
of Americans (and I mean, of ALL Americans) have come to live at
a constantly increasing level of well-being. This observation applies
to personal liberty and possessions alike. Producing a sequence
of fifty-five images which suggests otherwise is indefensible.
In order to assess the significance of this particular debate,
it is also essential to remember that each new class of students
starts out at ground level. Teachers may have grown weary of looking
at, say, Washington crossing the Delaware, but think of the child
who has yet to hear about it for the first time. Every aspect of
the Standards, therefore, must be viewed through the eyes of those
who would depend on them for that crucial first account of their
nation's history. This is all the more critical because our country,
as opposed to others which evolved over a long time, was deliberately
created in a specific way. People actually sat down and figured
out what it ought to be. The manner in which this act of Founding
is communicated to the young student will determine the attitude
of the grown person. Beyond that, history standards ought to focus
on key events and personalities.
The Standards insist that we have fallen short. Short of...what?
Or is the intent simply to make us feel guilty? And why would the
authors want to split and forever imprison future generations in
opposing groups, referring to "peoples" wherever they
can? Why do they resent this country's patently English origins?
Why do they, apparently, enjoy depicting the United States as a
heartless, struggling, failing society?
Recently, driving from Budapest airport toward the city center,
my wife and I passed a very strikingly-colored soccer stadium and
she inquired about its name. Mechanically, I uttered the name and
realized with a start that I had not done so in decades. Soon after
the New Hungarian Constitution of 1949, the Bolsheviks forbade the
use of both name and color. Not even a soccer team and its stadium
were permitted to retain their time-honored identity. The Communists
also renamed most every street, just a couple of years after the
Nazis had already changed them from the original. They then replaced
the designation of Time, just as Mr. Nash proposes: no more B.C.
or A.D. All traces of national identity were to be eradicated.
The gaping discrepancy between the stated intention and the actual
practice reminds me of a story which made the rounds not long after
the New Hungarian Constitution and all its 'blessings' had been
broadcast to the nation. One day, this man turns up at the state
health delivery office and asks to see the eye-ear specialist. "There
is no such person" responds the receptionist, "is it your
eyes or ears you want examined?" "No, no," insists
the patient, "I must see the eye-ear specialist." "As
I tried to tell you, there is no such doctor. What's your complaint
The man considers for a moment, then says: "I hear one thing
and see quite another!"