Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

SED 741
History Wars - Why is teaching history so controversial?

Below, please find the guides for the our discussion.  Please note that each is separated by a solid line.

Goals for today's discussion:

  1. To understand the debates and controversies that currently center around the teaching of history.
  2. To define history and distinguish between two disciplines: history and social studies.
  3. To understand the historical debates and controversies as well as the dialog and compromises that have influenced the way we teach history by taking a chronological journey through the "History Wars."

Goals for when we meet together on Elluminate. (See below "Things to do before meeting in class on Elluminate")

  1. To check in with each other to learn how things are going in our apprentice teaching and in classes at HSU.
  2. To discuss the "bottom line" things you learned from "The History Wars" lecture and discussion about teaching in general and teaching history in particular.
  3. To answer any questions that remain after you viewed the lecture/discussion on "The History Wars."
  4. To explore your understanding of the Common Core State Standards based upon your reading assignment.

Goal #1: To understand the debates and controversies that currently center around the teaching of history.

Cartoon of "War at Home"

Debate and controversy plus dialog and compromise = the essential ingredients of good history teaching

What makes up the debate and controversy surrounding the teaching of history?? Historian Eric Foner in Who Owns History points to a widening gap between two groups:
1. Disagreements AMONG HISTORIANS about how history should be studied and interpreted.

2. Disagreements BETWEEN THE PUBLIC AT LARGE AND HISTORIANS about what is and is not history and how that history should be taught.

But there is also a third debate and controversy that Foner does not address:

3. Disagreements within many public schools BETWEEN those favoring the teaching of history and those favoring the teaching of social studies.

Goal #2: To define history and distinguish between two disciplines: history and social studies.

Quote inscribed on the rotunda of the U.S. Library of Congress: "History is the biography of great men" (Adapted from Thomas Carlyle, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men.")

Traditional American history teaches

"...the significant issues, episodes, and turning points in the history of the United States, and how the words and deeds of individual Americans have determined the course of our nation.  This history teaches how the principles of freedom and democracy, articulated in our founding documents, have shaped - and continue to shape - America's struggles and achievements, as well as its social, political, and legal institutions and relations."
               ...U.S. Department of Education, Teaching American History

"Social studies is the integrated study of social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence.  Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economic, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences.  The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an independent world."

     ...National Council for Social Studies

Goal #3: To understand the historical debates and controversies as well as the dialog and compromises that have influenced the way we teach history by taking a chronological journey through the "History Wars."
A Chronological Study of the History Wars and the Struggle to Teach History in the Public Schools

1857   The National Education Association (NEA) became the first, and for over 40 years the only, forum in which leaders in all levels of education could discuss common concerns.

1870s A few of the major universities in the nation appointed the first professors to teach history. Prior to then, men with the leisure time to pursue historical inquiry as a hobby wrote and published most history.

1873 At its annual meeting the NEA adopted this resolution as its primary goal:  "Resolved: That the interests of education whether university, academy, normal school or common school, are one and inseparable; that all should have and show hearty sympathy with all other co-laborers in this general work, joining heart and hand toward the improvement and greater efficiency of schools of every grade, for the benefit of the individual and the safety of the state."  This set a precedent for K-16 Education.

1880s to 1890s   Some high schools began to offer and even require history courses.  These focused on the “Great Man” interpretation - that history can be explained mainly through the lives and political skills of "great men" - and usually consisted of Greek and Roman history, medieval, and modern European history. 

1884 - A few "professors, teachers, specialists, and others interested in the advancement of history in this country" gathered at the annual meeting of the American Social Science Association (ASSA) in Photograph of founders of the American Historical Associatioin in 1889 Saratoga, New York. Despite the opposition of the ASSA's president, the historians voted to establish the American Historical Association (AHA) as a separate organization. (This photo was taken in 1889 of the founding officers of the AHA. Source: http://www.historians.org/info/ahahistory.cfm)

1892   The NEA formed a committee - The Committee of Ten - to specifically discuss the chief purposes for teaching history in public schools. 

1893 The NEA Committee of Ten report declared that the chief purpose of teaching history was not to impart facts, but to train students to gather evidence, generalize upon data, estimate character, apply the lessons of history to current events, and state conclusions.  The Committee recommended the study of biography for 5th and 6th grades, U.S. history and civic government in 7th, Greek and Roman history in 8th, French history in 9th, English history in 10th, U.S. history in 11th, and intensive study of selected periods of history in 12th.

1900 to 1920s   The sequence of ancient history, medieval and modern history, U.S. history and civics prevailed in most high schools. 

1907 The Organization of American Historians (OAH) was founded to promote U.S. history teaching and scholarship, while encouraging the broadest possible access to historical resources and the most inclusive discussion of history

Photo of Charles Beard1913 to 1920s.  The First History War began in 1913 with Charles Beard's (pictured at the right) publication of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Beard challenged the standard "great men" account of the Founding Fathers that they created the Constitution to promote democratic ideals upon which the Revolution was fought and the new nation was founded. Instead, Beard claimed the Founders acted out of "selfish class interests" - that they were motivated more by selfish economic concerns than by philosophical principals of democracy. Historians, journalists, and American citizens across the nation immediately attacked his interpretation, thus promoting the first History War.

1925 Most public high schools replaced the three-year course of European history with just one year, while one year of U.S. history and civics remained a requirement in all schools.  Teaching history in elementary and junior high schools began shrinking and vanished in many school districts.  For the next 6 decades, no state established a coherent, sequential history curriculum.  Further, in most states, one could become a social studies teacher without taking a single history class.  In most elementary schools, no history existed in the curriculum.This remained the situation until the lates 1980s.

Photo of Scopes Trial1925 The Tennessee v. John Scopes trial erupted in Tennessee, beginning a long legal battle to stop the teaching of evolution in the schools.  (See http://users.humboldt.edu/ogayle/TAH/scopes.html for a full chronology of "The Evolution of Evolution in the Schools.")

1935  Congress passed the "Little Red Rider"- a resolution requiring teachers in Washington, D.C. to swear that they were not com- munists before they could receive their paychecks. In effect, it deterred teachers from even discussing the Soviet Union. The NEA was instrumental in repealing this resolution in 1937 and the organization also condemned "Loyalty Oaths" for teachers and book burnings, affirmed the "Fundamental Freedoms" of thought and expression in the classroom, and opposed censoring instructional materials, teaching techniques, and opinions.

1936 to 1944. The Second History War began with Harold Rugg's  publication of a new textbook that mirrored Beard's perspectives and applied his interpretations to all topics of US history.  Journalists and citizens labeled him a "communist" and many communities banned his books. Ruggs began a campaign to confront his detractors across the nation.

1940  The American Legion Magazine published an article, "Treason in the Textbook," spearheaded by B.C. Forbes (soon-to-be founder of Forbes magazine).  A cartoon (shown below) appeared in the article depicting a leering history teacher (Rugg) pouring slime on four books titled, "Constitution," "Religion," "U.S. Heroes," and "US History" while puzzled boys and girls look on in confusion. Cartoon of Harold Rugg's teaching subversive history


The National Association of Manufacturers placed 6,830 "sentinels" in 1,338 communities across the nation to cleanse the schools of "creeping socialism" such as that found in history books.

Mrs. Elwood Turner, the corresponding secretary of the Daughters of the Colonial Wars, declared that Ruggs was trying "to give a child an unbiased viewpoint instead of teaching real Americanism.  All the old histories taught my country right or wrong.  That's the point of view we want our children to adopt.  We can't afford to teach them to be unbiased and let them make up their own minds."

1950s to 1960s.  The Third History War  erupted in the University community and was enflamed by what became known as consensus history. Responding to the domestic upheaval of the Cold War, consensus historians countered the "negatives" interpretations of historical events by historians like Charles and Mary Beard and instead claimed there was more unity than conflict in the American past. They accepted notions of American Exceptionalism and an American character and supported narratives about a united American people. History in the hands of the consensus historians became a vehicle for American boosterism. 

1960s  Many nontraditional students entered the University and began to challenge the consensus historians.  Some entered history Ph.D. programs and thus changed the course of how history was taught in the university environment. These New Left Historians came from lower and middle class backgrounds and began to examine topics previously ignored by all historians - especially slavery, racism, and other multicultural issues. Increasingly, these New Left Historians were called revisionists - historians who revised past interpretations of U.S. history. (Note that in the 1930s, American universities annually produced about 150 history doctorates.  By the mid-1960s, they were producing about 600.  By 1970, about 1000.)   

1980s  The push to teach inclusive, multicultural history moved from the university to the nation’s primary and secondary schools. Many K-12 teachers worked to strengthen the history curriculum and design a more multicultural approach to teaching history.

Front cover of the OAH Magazine of History1980   The Organization of American Historians sponsored the first National History Day as a one-day contest for students to showcase their historical research.

1983 The U.S. Secretary of Education released a new study, A Nation at Risk, the product of a two-year federal study, which found poor academic performance at nearly every level of public education and warned that the education system was "being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity." The report prompted the first discussions for the Standards Movement as well as the first national discussion about reforms in public education.

1985   The OAH began publishing the bimonthly Magazine of History for K-16 teachers.  Each focused on a theme or topic of recent scholarship in American history and provided readers with informative articles, lesson plans, and current historiography.

1987 The California Department of Education published the first framework in the nation for a history-centered curriculum - California History/Social Science Framework. It included 17 goals and strands, specific course descriptions for grades K-12, and criteria for evaluation and instructional resources.

1988   The National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS) opened at UCLA with the specific goals of improving history education through academic and K-12 collaboration, gathering data on history teaching in the schools, sponsoring workshops, and organizing a nationwide network of history educators.

1989   President George H. W. Bush announced at the National Governor's Association that it was time "to establish clear national performance, goals that will make us internationally competitive and second to none in the 21st Century."  This announcement was a major change in the way education was designed. Education is a state, not a federal, prerogative.  A national effort on behalf of excellence in education was a precedent-setting goal.  Most Americans greeted this agenda with guarded anticipation.  Few wanted the federal government to suggest or mandate a national curriculum.

1990   President Bush launched "America 2000," a comprehensive, bi-partisan, long-term plan to develop "world class" national standards in history, English, mathematics, science, and geography - as well as voluntary achievement tests to assess progress in grades 4, 8, and 12. Consequently, the NCHS created a broadly representative K-16 organization designed to create such standards.

1991 Congress created the National Council on Education Standards and Testing (NCEST) to advise on the desirability of national standards and to recommend long-term policies.  In October, NCEST’s History Task Force supported developing national history standards that included interpretation and analysis, not just basic facts and that they be developed in a public forum inclusive of teachers, professional associations, groups with relevant expertise, and the public.

In December, the US Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) jointly funded and launched the National History Standards Project to be conducted by a newly-created entity, the National Council on History Standards.

Political cartoon about National History Standards1992  The National Council brought together groups broadly representative of educators, parents, and concerned citizens who embarked upon a public, bipartisan debate about standards.  The major debate focused on two issues: for World History, teaching Western Civilization versus global history; and for U.S. history, teaching an inclusive curriculum based upon diversity versus a traditional curriculum based upon the Great Man theory.  The debate was sometimes rancorous, but the group came to an understanding and created 31 main standard headings, each of which was explained and accompanied by over 12000 examples of how the standard could be taught.

The National Council, co-directed by Charlotte Crabtree and Gary Nash and UCLA, created council consisting of 23 individuals which, in turn, was advised by several newly-created groups:  a National Forum with representatives from 24 major education, parent-teacher, and public interest associations with a stake in history in the schools; 9 focus groups, chosen by leaders of the National Forum, which would review all drafts of the standards; and 3 curriculum task forces of 50 veteran teachers from Alaska to Florida.

1994   NCHS held its final meeting.  Drafts of the standards were received with broad-based and enthusiastic support and little dissent. While there were various critical suggestions for trimming, modifying, and expanding certain parts of the draft, there was only one person with sweeping objections.  Chester Finn, former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, commented:  “What I believe can only be fairly termed political correctness and relativism rears its head in too many places.  We’ve got the usual manifestations of excessive attention to fashionable groups and obscure individuals who need to be there for proportional purposes.”  He urged the council to consider how these standards would “go down with the Chamber of Commerce?  With the American Legion?  By callers to the Rush Limbaugh show?” No one rose to second his views, but several made rejoinders.  One person commented “these standards have never been directed to proportionality but to inclusiveness, to a factual rendering of our history.”

1994 to 1995. The Fourth History War began in October when NEH director  Lynn Cheney attacked the standards in the Wall Street Journal editorial titled "The End of History."   A media war ensued, as well as battles within the US Senate, among various Cabinet agencies, and among Presidential hopefuls.History War Cartoon 1994

Four days later, Rush Limbaugh told his radio audience that the standards were part of the America-bashing multicultural agenda that he had cautioned viewers and listeners about.  For many months he had been attacking historians who he said had “bullied their way into power positions in academia” in order to indoctrinate students with the message that “our country is inherently evil.” On October 28, Limbaugh again addressed the issue with his TV audience saying, in part, " ... history is an exploration? Let me tell you something folks. History is real simple. You know what history is? It's what happened. It's no more."

On November 8, the Wall Street Journal carried four letters to the editor under the title, “The History Thieves.”  Syndicated columnists jumped onto the bandwagon, using eye-catching titles like “History Hijacked.”

The NCHS responded that the standards had been part of a national dialog and debate and were by no means unanimous or written as the final say on history.  “History is an extraordinarily dynamic field today, and standards drafted for the schools must be open to continuing development to keep pace with new refinements and revisions in the field.”

1995 Battles raged in the U.S. Senate (which voted not to support the Standards), among various Cabinet agencies (especially the Department of Education and NEH which had funded the Standards and which were now under attack), and among presidential hopefuls (Dole bashed the Standards as unpatriotic and Clinton then backed away from his former support.)

1996  In January, NCHS received permission to make some revisions that would make the standards more palatable to Congress and the American people.  Revised standards with recommended changes were released in February.  These standards were allowed to go forward by the end of the year.

1998   In October, California approved the 1997 the final History-Social Science Content Standards. They were accepted by the Legislature as a guideline for teaching history, not a mandate.  By the end of the decade, California became the first state to  have both a detailed framework for teaching history and a set of voluntary standards.

2001 Rumblings of a New History War began with passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) - the cornerstone of President Bush’s educational policy - which required that states wishing to continue receiving federal funding for education test their students in math and reading – but not history - annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school; improve student test scores until 100% of students were proficient by 2014; make sure that core academic subjects are taught by “highly qualified teachers” by 2006; and imposed sanctions on schools that failed to improve test scores for two or more consecutive years. 

Within a few years, the NEA and millions of teachers across the nation began to question the consequences of NCLB in their classrooms – consequences that have forced schools to become more testing oriented than teaching oriented. Further, because of the emphasis placed on reading and math, NCLB has resulted in teaching less history in the K-12 educational world.

Congress allocated the first $125 million to the Teaching American History initiative designed to re-educate K-12 teachers about the values of "traditional American history."

No Child Left Behind political cartoon2004   Grumblings about the No Child Left Behind Act begin throughout the nation. In February at a meeting of the nation's governors at the White House, the U.S. Secretary of Education Ron Paige called the 2.7 million member NEA teacher's union "a terrorist organization" because some members refused to abide by provisions in NCLB.  In his apology, Paige made it clear that he was referring to the Washington-based union organization, not the teachers it represented.  The NEA president responded, "We are the teachers; there is no distinction."

2005   In April, the NEA, the nation's largest teacher union, and school districts in Michigan, Texas, and Vermont sued the U.S. Department of Education, alleging it was an "unfunded mandate" and had failed to fund NCLB adequately - Pontiac, et.al. v. Spellings.

Utah became the first state to refuse to comply with NCLB. By July, 15 states (Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Wyoming) had considered legislation to "opt-out" of NCLB and forgo federal education funds, and four states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wisconsin) had considered bills that would prohibit the use of state money to comply with NCLB.

In August, The State of Connecticut became the first state in the nation to sue the federal government in regard to NCLB. The dispute centered on NCLB's testing requirements stating that students in Connecticut have been tested in grades 4, 6, 8 and 10 for two decades and that accountability program has worked - Connecticut students consistently rank near the top of the nation in academic performance. But beginning in fall 2005, NCLB required additional tests in grades 3, 5 and 7. State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said the law specifically prohibied unfunded mandates - and the federal government was illegally forcing Connecticut to spend millions of its own dollars on unnecessary tests. In 2010, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's dismissal of Connecticut's lawsuit charging that the federal No Child Left Behind school reform law is an unfunded mandate.

During the 2005 academic year, more than 6,000 schools - about 13 percent of the number receiving federal funding - were rated "in need of improvement" because too many students failed the tests. The number of failing schools was expected to rise under stricter testing requirements.

In November, a U.S. District Court in Michigan granted the government's motion to dismiss the Pontiac case. The district court concluded that the Plaintiffs must comply with the Act’s requirements regardless of any federal-funding shortfall and accordingly granted the Secretary’s motion to dismiss the complaint. The NEA and the other plaintiff's filed an appeal.

No Child Left Behind Political Cartoon2006   In July, at the NEA's Representative Assembly meeting, the union voted to focus it's efforts on overturning NCLB. Members said while the basic intentions of the law are good - quality schools and skilled teachers - the law was too flawed to fix and the federal government's "obsessive" focus on testing student skills and punishing failing schools undermined education.

On July 1, Florida's Education Omnibus Bill (H.B. 7087e3) took effect for all its K-12 schools. Designed to "meet the highest standards for professionalism and historic accuracy, the bill states in part that "American history shall be viewed as factual, not constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence." Interpretating history is frowned upon and the bill describes how history should be taught through specific periods and episodes: "the period of discovery, early colonies, the War for Independence, the Civil War, the expansion of the United States to its present boundaries, the world wars, and the civil rights movement to the present."

2007 In February, the NCLB Commission, created to hold hearings around the country to "analyze the strengths and weaknesses of NCLB" released its report, Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation's Children. The report supported continuing NCLB, but added 75 recommendations for improvement and change.

2008 In January, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Department of Education in the 2005 Pontiac, et.al. v. Spellings case brought by several school districts and NEA affiliates. The Court found that NCLB comprised an unfunded mandate: "Because statutes enacted under the Spending Clause of the United States Constitution must provide clear notice to the States of their liabilities should they decide to accept federal funding under those statutes, and because we conclude that NCLB fails to provide clear notice as to who bears the additional costs of compliance, we REVERSE the judgment of the district court and REMAND this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion." The Department of Education immediately filed a petition for a rehearing.

NCLB became a hot topic in the 2008 presidential election. John McCain on No Child Left Behind. Barack O'Bama on No Child Left Behind.

2009 The Obama administration proposed sweeping changes in NCLB, calling for broad changes in how schools are judged to be failing or succeeding. To be eligible for "The Race to the Top," states had to adopt "internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the work place." This meant that in order for a state to be eligible for these grants, the states had to adopt the Common Core State Standards or a similar career and college readiness curriculum (see below).

Map of Common Core Standards state adoptions 2012The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association (NGA) began working on what became known as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The stated purpose was to "provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them." Additionally, "The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers," which will place American students in a position in which they can compete in a global economy. The CCSS address the content areas of English language arts (ELA) and mathematics. Additionally, the common core ELA standards include literacy standards for history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. These kindergarten through grade 12 standards provide a progression of knowledge and skills that prepare students to graduate from high school and be ready for college and careers.

The Common Core State Standards are funded by the governors and state schools chiefs, as well as private donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and others. States are expected to implement this initiative by 2015 by basing at least 85% of their state curricula on the Standards.

2010 In March, the Texas Board of Education approved a social studies curriculum that puts a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers' commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.

In July, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's dismissal of the State of Connecticut's lawsuit charging that the federal No Child Left Behind school reform law was an unfunded mandate. (See 2005 above)

2012 Forty-six states had adopted the Common Core Standards - all but Texas, Virginia, Alaska, and Nebraska had adopted the CCSS while Minnesota had adopted only the English Language Arts standards (see map above).

 Lessons From the History Wars
  1. The history wars demonstrated that politicizing education has great costs - especially in terms of impeding our national mission to improve the teaching of history.
  2. The debate between revisionist historians and the American public has intensified over the years.  Most Americans continue to believe there but one set of facts, deeds, or ideas that comprise "the truth" about US history.
  3. The history wars have not convinced history teachers that teaching students historical content is pointless if we do not ask them to reflect upon the issues, as well as analyze and debate them.

on the other hand...

  1. The history wars strengthened the growing collaboration between K-12 teachers and university scholars.
  2. The historical narrative became more inclusive by adding those previously excluded to our textbooks, curriculum, and tests.
  3. The history wars proved that Americans are still interested in and concerned about teaching history in the nation's schools.
  4. The history wars encouraged many states to debate the merits of a statewide, standards-based history curriculum.

When we meet in our Elluminate session, we will focus primarily on summarizing what we learned from today's lecture and discussion. To prepare for our class meeting, please address the requirements below in the "To do before meeting in class on Elluminate."

To do before meeting in class on Elluminate:

  1. Be prepared to check in with your colleagues in regard to how things are going in your apprentice teaching and in your classes at HSU.
  2. After watching the lecture on "The History Wars," please do the following:
  3. Go to this website on the Common Core Standards - http://corestandards.org/frequently-asked-questions. Read through the FAQs and be prepared to discuss during our Elluminate meeting what you think about the general idea of Common Core Standards, how they may influence your teaching, and any questions you may have about them.