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'Patriotically Correct' History Isn't Honest : Standards: Political actors shouldn't dictate the work of the humanities endowment.

March 12, 1995|JON WIENER | Jon Wiener is a professor of history at UC Irvine

The Smithsonian Institution set a dangerous precedent by canceling plans for the Enola Gay exhibit on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima: It has ceded to Congress the power to define what constitutes American history. The exhibit was canceled after 81 members of Congress joined the American Legion in demanding that the Enola Gay be shown "proudly and patriotically" or not at all.

Congressional conservatives have mounted a similar campaign to abolish the National Endowment for the Humanities, on the grounds that the NEH-funded national Standards for U.S. History aren't patriotic enough. Together these incidents indicate how the right has been trying since the Nov. 8 election to establish an official version of history that could be called "patriotically correct."

Originally funded by the NEH under the Bush Administration to upgrade the teaching of history, the National History Standards are the product of two years of meetings among teachers, scholars and parents, along with 35 organizations ranging from the American Assn. of School Librarians to the National Education Assn.

The standards--which school districts can choose to adopt or reject--express a consensus that history should include the experiences of ordinary people as well as elites and broad treatment of regions, nations and cultures. They suggest that teachers go beyond rote memorization and ask students to explain and analyze historical developments and conflicts.

What's the problem? Former NEH Chairman Lynne Cheney says that the standards give "white males . . . little or no notice." Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) called them "revisionist history" similar to that of the Soviets and the Nazis.

A typical section of standards says that high school students should be able to explain "the arguments for and against affirmative action" and "for and against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment." Where's the bias? Nevertheless, Senate Republicans sponsored a resolution, adopted 99 to 1, opposing further funding of the standards because they lack "a decent respect for U.S. history's roots in Western Civilization," whatever that means.

The American Legion and Cheney have every right to campaign for their versions of history, but it's another thing when Congress gets into the act. Those who favor "getting government off our backs" should be disturbed by congressional mandates that dictate to teachers a patriotically correct version of our nation's past.

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