History on Trial in the Heart of Darkness
by Rich Gibson
Social Studies Coordinator, Wayne State University, Detroit
Gary Nash set himself apart as an other early on. He wore cowboy boots, a big pearl-studded belt buckle, and twirled a ten-gallon hat at academic conferences, He focused his work as a historian on the lives of people who had been written out of history: black people, mestizo people, poor and working people. He crossed an academic Rubicon and wrote books for kids. He was path-breaker, courageous, ready to move into a territory unknown in the tight circles of North American academic history. Perhaps what is more important, he made it possible for a rising group of researchers, narrators, even popularizers, to press the standpoints of the silenced into respectable history texts. Then he became a key figure in writing the U.S. and World History Standards. (Nash, 1997, 1993, 1991, 1986).
Nash explored new territory with only benevolence for a compass, and as Conrad's Marlowe demonstrates, benevolence neither creates a worthy ally, nor is a good direction-finder. While Nash helped shift the historical paradigm, his notion that the sheer daring of including many standpoints, but not all, is equivalent to intellectual justice, got him quite thoroughly enmeshed in battles he never fully understood. And he began to live well by doing good. He established, at U.C.L.A., a "Center" for studying history. He wrote textbooks, one to meet California's history standards. (Nash, 1993). He wrote, along with Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross Dunn, and a host of well-meaning others, the National History Standards, the mother of textbooks. He believes he got savaged for it, in a war on rationality. But Nash's ideas of war, savagery, and rationalism, are extraordinarily limited, naive. The standards live on, revised, diluted, but influential far beyond the bounds of the history profession. The history standards were a formative guide in the writing of standards in other fields, even the social studies.(1)
Nash takes a swipe at those whom he sees as the enemy, the powerful others who got his History Standards voted down 99-1 in the U.S. Senate, in History on Trial. The historian here becomes advocate and journalist, not as introspective as one might desire, not as revealing as one might expect. Pointedly, History on Trial is not so much about a trial; Nash thinks it is a war. He uses the language of great battles, "blitzkrieg" (to describe the horrors that descended on him), "under fire," "showdown," "run for cover," and "D-Day" to depict what was really a tempest in a teapot compared to the real wars, Bosnia or Rwanda for example, that were actually killing people at the time. This is not to say the cultural wars do not influence the possibilities and conduct of war. It is to say that what Nash presents is more language than life. Even so, these history standards are important ground. Those who can muster the power to shape what people know and how they should know it, test it, on a mass scale, are inherently partisans, fair game. When partisans, even academics, use the rhetoric of carnage, they create serious tensions. To appropriate Nash's language, my project is to reconnoiter, to address the terrain, to ask these questions: Why do this? Who did it? Who did not do it? What was done? How was it undone? Who undid it? Should we do this at all? What to do next? Those who prefer Sinatra's do-be-do-be-do, should cut loose now.
"Gary, why a textbook for national history standards?" I asked Nash December 1997. Here is his public response: "I wrote the standards because the train was leaving the station and I wanted to be on board. They (the far right) were going to do this. They're voluntary standards."
"How voluntary?" I asked.
Nash: "Why have standards if you have no way to evaluate them? You need a test."
In History on Trial, Nash elaborates his response. He says students are doing poorly in history (p.ix). Teachers may be too incompetent to know what history is or how to teach it (p.176). The standards are designed to demonstrate a common legacy and to develop responsible citizens and voters (p.91). Nash wanted to enact his brand of history, one which elevates the relativity of standpoints over the bleak collection of falsely objective facts. He wanted, above all, to promote his form of nationalism, the idea that we are all in the same boat--despite remarkable differences of culture. Clearly, an element of his nationalism is designed to bolster national economic development. "...established democracies that lacked highly skilled and literate populations might do poorly indeed in the dog-eat-dog arena of international trade." (p.129)
The National History Standards open with the comment that "knowledge of history is a pre-condition of political intelligence (p.1). More is promised: "...fulfillment for all citizens of the nations democratic ideals." Nash believes smarts have a great deal to do with economic and political power--for everyone--and he wants to believe that having good ideas, like his history standards, can create equality and democracy. For him, national standards in education would offset the rise of competing economies, those producing incoming Toyotas for example (p.151, 164). With this nationalism driving his practice, Nash aligns himself with a range of elites, from the backers of the Carnegie Foundation to the top leadership of the National Education Association, the national Chamber of Commerce, the National Alliance of Business, and the American Federation of Teachers. They share a common goal, patriotism, differing over tactical direction from time to time, as did the standards authors. Their debates are sometimes bitter, as History on Trial testifies, but the emphasis on the struggle over how to better manufacture nationalism gets in the way of a careful historical examination of the material interests that the shrill talk mystifies, an in-depth look at the real stakes the personifications of the sides of the debate hold. The internal dispute about the structure and substance of history obscures the stake the authors hold in trying to create a certain kind of student. (2)
Nash thinks his form of patriotism, and his form of history, is richer, more informed, more effective, inclusive, and a better motivator, than that of those who follow Dickens' character, Gradgrind, in Hard Times, who insists, "...facts alone are wanted in life." (Nash, 1998, p.10). Nash wants a patriotism more carefully and gently constructed, interpretive facts woven to demonstrate the commonality and importance of all potential contributors. "History without analysis, without interpretation, is barren chronicle" (p.9). His standards, "Evaluate the continuing struggle for e pluribus unum amid debates over national and group identity, group rights vs. individual rights, multiculturalism, and bilingual education" (p.253).
So Nash is the patriot of the center. Patriots of the right, in contrast, seek to beget national identity by fabricating standards which canonize the constricted values, disguised as facts, of mostly old white folks--obliterating the patriotic potential of those whose history Nash and his coauthors have specialized in. If there is a left in History on Trial, it is well underground. Indeed, the standards Nash wrote are so centrist, in his view, that they stand above and beyond the political/economic fray. Those who launch salvoes on the standards are the ones who politicize them.
Nash understands that textbooks are typically designed to meet the politics, fears, and desires of the lowest common denominator of the citizenry. (Nash, 1998 p.70). He never quite girds himself up to suggest they are written for one reason, profits. But he suggests that his history standards are the default drive of historical understanding, neutral, reasonable, and only politicized when under attack. One way of accomplishing this impartiality is to show that the process of writing the standards was fair, inclusive, reasonable.
Nash says that all the, "major stakeholders," had a hand (Nash, 1998, p. x, 163). The cast of players is impressive. The leadership of what the right calls the Educational Elite was all there. The NEA (both), the AFT, the American Historical Association, the National Council for History Education, the Organization of American Historians, the Organization of History Teachers, the Council of Chief State School Officials, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the National Forum for History Standards, and, the National Council for the Social Studies.
But what was really afoot? As is so often the case, a private body, consisting of many people, most of them vetted as at least middle class by years of passing through the academic selection process, sought to assemble a form of official knowledge, which Nash acknowledges had to be measured by standardized exams. They wanted their document to be the curricular guide for public schools, and Nash represents the process of development as democratic. It wasn't.
Nash approvingly sites the prominent Cambridge historian, E.H. Carr in History on Trial. (p.10) But Carr was a Marxist. He never would have made the cut. Neither would the socialist Albert Einstein, left off the Manhattan Project because of his leftist sympathies and who we shall soon see is wrongly described as formative in originating the kind of history Nash prefers. The left was systematically excluded from the project (p.159). Feminist historians I interviewed in October 1998 claimed they were moved away from the table. Despite Nash's claims to the contrary, the right was there, well represented by its own ideologues like Albert Shanker and Ruth Wattenberg of the AFT, whose intellect and social practice helped organize the decay of urban education. Chester Finn was there, making his customary racist and demagogic appeal for national testing, and severe penalties like withholding work permits for bad scores. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese made her nativist points ("That slavery is evil is a Western idea," p.212).
Indeed, in more subtle ways, the educational elite sought to hide from public view. For example, Mary Hatwood-Futrell is the three-time president of the two million member National Education Association and now the president of the merged international organization of the NEA and AFT. Nash records her credentials as a representative of the "Quality Education for Minorities Network" (p.163). Perhaps more elusive still, the leadership of the National Social Studies was there, ostensibly full of propriety, but really a group whose faculty organization suffered the resignation of its key black leadership in 1997 because of their perception of the institutional racism of the body. More: the key leadership group of twenty-eight people, the National Council, was selected by Nash, Crabtree, and active rightists Lynn Cheney and Dianne Ravitch. The funders, according to Nash, approved of the decision to exclude, "fervent ideologues." Eight of the leaders are presidents of private membership organizations, as presidents. Two of them identify themselves as active K-12 educators, the only ones remotely likely to suffer the democratic lifestyle of earning less than $50,000 a year (p.159). This process of selection seems as natural and democratic to the authors as the rising of the sun. Nash is this naive: "The federal government had taken no part in developing the history standards, except for the funding." (p.261) The indictment here is that this is not a non-partisan democratic public body. In my eyes, it is a private right-center coalition pretending its objectivity about history and pedagogy--seeking to impose its limited understanding of what has been and how it can be understood on people who have interests in war-like competition with the elites this coalition personifies.(3)
E.H. Carr wrote the classic, What is History, in 1961. Long before Nash, Carr specifically attacked Grindgrind's history-is-just-the-facts-repeated approach. Carr counsels that history is a continuing process of unveiling, interpretation, moving from appearances to the essence of things, testing and studying causes (a search imbued with political and economic values), a social process enabling people to comprehend the past and transform the future. Carr insists that every historian has a standpoint, itself needy of deep investigation. Beyond why, the historian asks, "whither?" (Carr, p 143). Let me add to Carr: embedded in every bit of history is an analytical scheme for action.
Did our squad of the earnest twenty-eight improve on Carr's little book? Let's see. After all, Nash defends the World History Standards, a companion project he operated as well, which took on the heady task of aiming to highlight the events and topics of greatest moment to all of humankind. Not only will we be offered what to know, but the analytical framework to know it (Nash, 1998, p.210, 177).
Nash comes at this in two ways. He historicizes the history standards. He defines historicizes and defines good history.
Nash's review of how the standards came to be is an unfortunately barren journalistic chronology of what appeared to be going on, the movement from the 1983 Nation at Risk Report to America 2000 under Bush and the passage of Goals 2000 in 1993.(4) For Nash, this progression toward more and more regulation of curriculum and instruction is propelled, mostly, by well-meaning people who simply want to improve education and support national economic development. Missing here is something absent in all of Nash's work, a good understanding of schools and social change. He demonstrates that a "sheepskin curtain" fell between the k-12 world and the professorate over the last thirty years, but he cannot seem to see that it clouded his vision as well. (p. 92).
On the one hand, Nash fails to recognize that this period, following the Vietnamese victory (in part caused by U.S. soldiers so insufficiently nationalist that they shot their officers), U.S. campus uprisings, ghetto rebellions, and the shift in the U.S. from the world's greatest creditor nation to a debtor nation, saw the rapid expansion of economic inequality in the U.S. and throughout the world. The demands for standardization came from companies and foundations that looked at this reality, cringed, and sought to establish hegemony on more reliable grounds (McCollum-Clark, 1995, Shannon, 1998). Nash misses a growing body of education literature that attacks the standardization of curricula as the regulation of knowledge, drawing on social history methods to investigate the underlying economic and political interests of those very real elites who profit from governing ideology. For example, the Scandia Report insists there is no real crisis in the U.S. education system, that it is doing a reasonably good job for some sectors of population. The report suggests that it is disingenuous to shift the blame for a lack of competitiveness in world production and trade onto education's back (Schneider, 1992, p.169, Berliner, 1996). Others doubt that the future will go to the educated. Indeed, given the downward trends in income distribution, some see the future composed of desperate competition between well educated people--for monotonous jobs (Noble, 1994, Shannon, 1998).
On the other hand, Nash does not note that elites in inequitable nations are rarely interested in creating critical citizens, and he is apparently unaware of the body of research that says that standardization will only exacerbate inequality (Anyon, 1998, Apple, 1993). Nash does not understand that the combination of rising inequality and a future barren of occupational reward and meaning might cause elites to re-establish new grounds for nationalism. His apparent naivete reaches to his repeated claim that his national standards may require tests, but no one would ever have to take them. Still, Nash does understand this: answers about whose history should this be must first be couched in terms of us versus them: "...rich countries were only going to stay rich if the working population became increasingly...skillful" (p. 106).
If his historical work in History on Trial is thin journalism, Nash's understanding of what history is, or should be, is not. He represents a significant, dominant, academically popular understanding of how things came to be. History is, "...the study of change in human society and how developments in the various spheres of human experience--not only political and intellectual but also social, economic, scientific, environmental, and so on---combine to make the world what it is today" (Nash, p. 165). While Nash's practice would indicate that some things are patently true, for example that Marxists, or "rogue scholars," should not participate directly in the standards creation, he argues that history is only relative. (p.12, 13) For him, there is no preferred linchpin, no wedge, that offers an entre to historical understanding--except perhaps, beneficence.
Nash historicizes the position that all history is tentative, relative, attached to the subjective-but-honest historian. For Nash, there is no systematic centripetal or organizing principle that can be used as a sextant to make sense of the past--a relativist idea Nash says came to birth with Einstein's Theory of Relativity in the 1920's. In the theory, Nash reads only half of Einstein who wrote that despite relative standpoints, some things are absolutely true (in science the speed of light--or in society the anarchy of capitalism). The essence of bourgeois science is
(virtually) immutable particles running around in an empty void. The right wing of social history takes a similar stance, isolated people, or distinct groups, toddling along in a social void, with nothing discernible, or even coherent unintended consequences, guiding the way. This is the kind of history Nash theoretically likes. But, in historical practice, Nash misses the origins of social history, in Hegel and Marx. Indeed, in History on Trial, as in most of U.S. education, the ABC's mean Anything But Class.
This absence of theoretical substance (though I reiterate that Nash's relativism disintegrates in his practice, just as one who really believes that all scientific understanding is relative would have trouble taking a step) leaves the standard's author with only form as a tool for understanding. Nash sets up five standards for thinking historically: chronological thinking, historical comprehension, historical analysis and interpretation, historical research capabilities, and historical issues analysis and decision making (p.177). He does suggest we need to know why events occur, but makes no distinction, say, between the geneticist arguments of E.O. Wilson and Carr's Marxism. How are we to know why something happened if we have no hypothetical interpretation of what causes things to change?
Of course, the standards are portrayed as the embodiment of the cutting edge of relativist understanding. Let us look at but one section to understand what was done.
The U.S. invasion of Vietnam gets two pages of the standards, not as an invasion, but "involvement." As is the pattern throughout, the section leads with a grade by grade header: "Students should be able to:" (NCHS, 1997, p.218). Students are urged to view the documents, the Paris Peace Accords for example, to review the roles of class and race on the military, to look at the constitutional issues of the war. Nowhere is the student asked to take the view of General Giap, or Ho Chi Minh, or an NLF sapper at Dien Bien Phu. Nowhere is the historical role of the NLF as an ally during WWII, urged for examination. This is the imperial gaze under construction. For example, the question, "Why was the Tet offensive a military victory but a political disaster for the United States?", sets up the false dichotomy of politics and military affairs that in part created the U.S. flight from Vietnam in 1975. Giap knew these factors to be one. U.S. General Westmoreland did not. Westmoreland and his troops finally ran away, abandoning their allies. Typical of U.S. mainstream analysis, the student is inveigled to see the anti-war movement as self-propelled, rising out of liberal feelings of guilt, never driven, fundamentally, by the remarkable tactical capabilities, courage, and strategic foresight of the revolutionary NLF leadership. The student is never offered the chance to question whether she may have more in common with an NLF sapper than with Westmoreland.
The right went nuts. Nash, in his words, " . . . trained to look backward," was ambushed by those with the sense to know that looking back involves peering forward. (Nash, p.193). Lynne Cheney, who initially commissioned the standards as the chief of the National Endowment for Humanities (Nash calls her "chairman"), bushwhacked Nash and his collaborators. She made a series of TV appearances, using a sound-bite guerilla attack that toppled the academic Nash. She aimed at the student achievement and teacher activities sections and claimed the standards ignored the Constitution. Nash, unable to grasp the TV terrain, tried to offer long, thoughtful responses, left on cutting room floors. She said the standards forget about Congress and focus in the National Organization for Women. Nash wanted to discuss Congress. Al Shanker, arch-nationalist of the right, adopted the criticism that the standards focused too little on the West, and that white folks got short shrift.
Rush Limbaugh had great fun with Nash, urging his listeners to flush the standards down the "sewer of multiculturalism" (p.5). Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy called them "standards from hell." The Wall Street Journal called Nash a "History Thief." Popular author Joy Hakim hit below the belt, calling the standards, "boring," as if they could be as "sprightly and lavishly illustrated as her textbooks," huffs Nash (p.230).
Nash feels set up as the chief author of the standards, which he contends were written by the masses. Once set up, he was pummeled down. Clinton, the president Nash so trusted, the once-governor of Arkansas who fervently supported the concept of standards (though that support was somewhat undermined by his state's school system), panicked and left Nash alone on the battlefield, wounded. Nash produces his press clips to demonstrate that he is just as much of a patriot as the next guy--to no avail. The senate shot him down 99-1 (the one wishing to attack the standards more forcefully.) He went back to the drawing board, deleted some of the objectionable stuff (like the teacher activities section) and, with help from the Rockefeller Foundation, printed the new revised standards. By then, Limbaugh's attention span was exhausted. The new new standards drew a yawn (but Cheney still hates them). Better still, Diane Ravitch, who had torpedoed the first set of standards, said, in the Wall Street Journal, she liked the new ones, heading rightist criticism off at the pass. "The guns of the history war fell nearly silent" (p.258). Nash is tickled that Cheney's book about the showdown was "a non-starter" (p.257). And Harvey Kaye, perhaps the most left of those who participated in the standards process, was critical of the absence of the study of socialism, but on the whole thought the standards were ok (Kaye, 1995). Thus, in analytical-chronological fashion, the standards were written by a select collective who sought to make them neutral, by actively culling against their vision of neutrality. Thus established, the standards were politicized, bombed. The first set of neutral standards were subsumed by a new set of more neutral standards.
The National Council for the Social Studies gets mixed review from Nash. After years of divisiveness, history versus the social studies, Nash feared the NCSS would have nothing to do with writing history standards. Of course, they finally did. But Nash says that NCSS leaders lobbied hard to include the social studies in those fields requiring national standards, and, moreover, tried to replace the history and geography standards with their own (p.157). He laments for the halcyon days when history, not social studies, was the focus of the K-12 curriculum, and worries that "history haters" may have taken over the schools. Even so, Nash is open to the possibility that the social studies made important contributions--in opening a more panoramic view of the past, and thus helping to expose how little students in the early 80's, when calls for standards became loud, knew about it. Social studies educators, at least in this area, will gain from seeing the take on them from the official historian's viewpoint.
Following Nash's language, a standard is a rallying flag on a battlefield. But what educational standardization amounts to is the regulation of knowledge, especially in a society of accelerating inequality and authoritarianism. The regulations typically operate as dream censors, constructing narrow cognitive horizons, fracturing crucial affective ties between school workers and students, and, as consciousness depressants, deny people both the content knowledge and investigative methods requisite to discovering their own interests.
School is the place where elites strive for a skillful, if uncritical workforce. It's where the ideology that sent thousands of young men to Vietnam, witless nationalism, racism, obedience, is fabricated. Our schools now divide children by class and race, and often sex, geographically, in tracked classrooms, in the curricula, and in varying forms of directiveness in pedagogy. School is huge marketplace for everything from textbooks to architects and bus companies. But it is also where hope, real or false, is fashioned. Now the last remaining real community center in de-industrialized North America, schools are a battleground for education for democracy, which Dewey suggests is, in part, "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further consequences to which it leads " (Dewey, p.6). The opposition seeks an education that manufactures acquiescence.
Schools are also the canaries in the mine of society, measuring available freedom. There is a remarkable convergence of the orthodox left, represented from Paulo Freire to Stalin, the center, as portrayed by Nash, and the many pockets of the right, from Limbaugh to Ravitch to Shanker's inheritors in the AFT: all agree on the need for standards, what truth shall be known and how it shall be tested in school. The boundary they all agree upon is philosophical and practical. On one hand truth is located somewhere other than in the exploratory work of educators and students. On the other hand, revolutionary questions about the permanence of elites, questions about the meaning of democracy and equality, about the material interests behind ideas, are silenced. Standards like Nash's prescribe a constricted universe, create a false and stunted horizon. Standards reify the movement from appearance to essence which girds historical understanding. This deepening probe into reality becomes a one-sided study of form: how might we set up a convenient fiction to establish key eras in history, for example. Absent a unifying theory, absent the interplay of form and substance, like what it the relationship of the means of production in a given era to its ideology, there is no way to test for causation: how come there is a relationship between the rising cries for standards and increasing inequality? These standards recognize neither that change continues, that we may not have reached the highest stage of human development, nor why it is that change occurs: one chunk of causation is as good as the next. In sum, standards are myopia encoded as educational vision.
Standards underline the body-mind dichotomy that prevails in so many fields predominately composed of women workers. The body is stripped from the mind. The standard, alien and distant from student-educator interaction, becomes the mind in the classroom, the body is the classroom teacher serving as a salesperson of the dominion. It matters little how non-directive the initial standards might be. As soon as a test is attached to them, and every standard is finally merely a scaffold for a test, they become extraordinarily directive--and divisive. The test of reality is set up away from the students and educators, in the mind of the test-makers.
Standards are, moreover, veiled literacy tests. Those students whose class background matches the authors, and examiners, will have a powerful advantage over those whose background make it necessary to translate and retranslate material. As such, the standards not only reflect the reality of intensified inequality, they recreate it. Students and educators will be pushed further apart still, as more and more teacher time is stolen by exam preparation. In Michigan, for example, my surveys indicate that in 1997, nearly thirty percent of teacher-student contact time was being used for test preparation (Gibson, 1997).
Finally, standards developed as these were, have the force of political and economic power behind them. The standards do not stand apart from the milieu in which they are born. Once set loose, the standards become profitable to a variety of types, like real estate agents churning property values, none of them primarily interested in the critical abilities of kids. Teachers become Sorcerer's Apprentices, chasing a moving norm on test scores, ever scrambling to prove their kids are better than the others.
The burning fuse in education is not that students are ill-prepared and the teachers unfit to teach. This crisis ahead is that, very soon, about 95% of the teaching force will be white and middle class, while a majority of the students will be kids of color and poor. Rising inequality, coupled with authoritarianism, demonstrate that Nash's, "we are all in the same boat," patriotism, simply is not a rational alternative. The correct answer to Rodney King's question, "Can't we all get along?", is: "No." Some people are living well, because others are living in misery. At issue to educators, whose jobs are more working class than professional as more and more standardization invades the field, is the age-old union saw: Which side are you on? Will you take the side of poor and working class kids and parents, who have the greatest stake in democratic education, or the side of elites, who camouflage even their positions of privilege?
Should educators, at best, adopt Nash's missionary credo of benevolence, rather than solidarity, they will find themselves rightly seen as missionaries of an evil god, invaders, on hostile turf. The history of standardization is a good textbook in the sense it demonstrates the progression of an injury to one only preceding an injury to all: standards which de-skill teachers buttress exams which underpin teacher and school evaluations which underpin reward and punish funding systems, from wages to transportation. Jean Anyon has made it clear that school reform that does not include economic reform is "like cleaning the air on one side of a screen door," and is likely to simply deepen economic and social divisions (Anyon, 1998, p.164).
When I address educators, students and parents, criticizing the regulation of knowledge through standards, I am usually accused of wanting to substitute my own regulations. I do think there are key issues in any society which give a focus to all the others. For elites, in an increasingly unjust and inequitable world, it is important to pacify a population through ideology, along with the usual divide and conquer tactics--and sheer force. Imperial schools would want to hide benchmark questions for understanding, to make people so short-sighted that they could not distinguish a centripetal matter from a peripheral annoyance. Then, it would be vital to demonstrate to people that they cannot comprehend or transform the world, just the message of the form and content of nearly every educational standard I have seen.
The centripetal issues schools commonly obscure are: (1) how value is created, the role of production, (2) how coherent methods of inquiry into understanding change are developed and tested, (3) the role of passion and responsible sexuality--and the relationship of fearing pleasure to obsequiousness, and, (4) how it is that people are estranged from their productive lives, active intellectual growth, and creative sensuality. I think educators need to deal with these issues. Every social studies teacher should be prepared to answer the question, "What is the motive force(s) of history?"
But I have opposed the standardization of education everywhere I have gone. Of course, I raise the issues above and stick them in my writing. But I opposed the writing of standards in the Grenadian revolutionary period and in the U.S. I am against standards, against textbooks, everywhere, always. Good teaching comes from a meeting of very specific ingredients which is ruptured by standardization: the particular passions and expertise of a teacher, the unique individual student, a community with singular resources, all wrapped in an atmosphere of critical love, a classroom where the risk of critique is privileged--and the educator's paradigm made clear and open to question. Standards, alien to all of this, promote an employee consciousness, which I have no interest in supporting.
Hilda Taba and Laura Zirbes, years ago in the pages of the First Yearbook of the John Dewey Society, said, "Textbooks are the utter enemy of intelligent teaching" (Kilpatrick, p.105). To establish a social studies curriculum, they suggest we step outside and look at society, a whole text not easily broken into constituent, alien, parts like economics and history and civics. Good teachers will find ways to subvert any textbook they are handed. However, deepening regulation, this veritable time and motion approach to standards, will be tougher to resist. The kids are going to have to take those exams. Whitehead's wisdom, "The best education is to be gained from pulling the utmost information from the simplest apparatus..," is demolished by the urgent sweep of information that standardization typically foists on the curriculum (Whitehead, 1991, p.22) . A critical read of Carr and Whitehead is a far better guide to democratic pedagogy than the National Standards for History--shorter too.
Standardization is upon us, that is, unless we do something. There is historical precedent. Near the turn of the century, Margaret Haley, an early feminist and founder of U.S. teacher unionism, united kids, parents, and educators around the issues of class size, academic freedom for curricula design, and fair taxes to fund the schools. She often won. On her deathbed, she called for a more class-conscious, critically aware, movement of school workers (Zitron, 1968, p.97).
British teachers faced similar standards in this decade. They went on strike. In Michigan, in 1997, the students in entire school districts refused to take the state's standardized exams. Students near San Francisco, in October 1998, went on strike against their schools which they identified as both their present and their future: prisons. Canadian teachers led one of the largest strikes in the history of North America in 1997, uniting kids, parents, and educators. Teachers create, collectively, enormous value: hope. To gain control of the creation, educators need to act collectively, in conjunction with reliable allies. This is where choosing sides becomes significant.
Nash has become what he set out to oppose. His many contributions to
the development of a more inclusive history can never be written away.
The history standards he guided are not the usual unctuous, toadying, fashionable,
color-splashed documents that make high-profit textbooks. But his outlook,
a relativist paradigm driven, not by the solidarity that a class analysis
can offer, but by benevolence, the motive of the missionaries, turned him
into his own opposite. History on Trial offers up a decent explanation
of how that came to be.
1. I distinguish textbooks, like Nash's, The American People, or the original National History Standards, from texts, like Dubois', Black Reconstruction in America. A textbook is a directive instructional manual, designed to fix the curriculum and methods of teaching--usually including questions to be asked, formats for essays, related resources to be utilized, tests, etc.
2. These organizations and the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Governors Association, a remarkable convergence of business labor and government all offering corporate state solutions to the foreshadowing of international economic crises, co-sponsored a full page ad in the New York Times, October 2, 1998. The ad supports grade retention, tough testing, intensified grading practices (p. A24).
3. For Einstein's take on socialism, see Monthly Review, May, 1998, p.1-7. Writing in 1948, he describes, in clear and sharp terms, the inhumane, anarchic, debilitating nature of capitalist development, and suggests that socialism is the only way out.
4. Nash jumped into this stream in 1988, setting
up the National Center for History Standards, funded by the National Endowment
for the Humanities, at U.C.L.A., In the early 1990's Nash wrote a textbook
purchased by Houghton Mifflin addressing the California History Standards.
The book was attacked as racist. It was revised. California adopted the
textbook in 690 districts (Nash, 1998, p. 115-117).
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