During the famous turning point scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear, the King cries out, “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” Almost two years after Lynne Cheney’s op-ed criticisms in The Wall Street Journal (note 1) and Rush Limbaugh’s call “to flush the history standards down the toilet,” it is painfully clear to the more than six thousand teachers, historians and parents who worked on developing and reviewing the national history standards that their work was unfairly caricatured for narrow partisan reasons. The history standards were chosen to become the symbolic Mapplethorpe metaphor for those more interested in abolishing the National Endowment for the Humanities than in the quality of history taught in our nation’s schools.
Ironically, most criticisms were leveled at the suggested teaching activities rather than the actual national standards. These teaching activities or “examples of student achievement” were composed by K-12 classroom teachers in an effort to help educators consider varied ways to measure student achievement of the standards. As a participant in the World History Standards project, I can attest that the teacher-writers and reviewers knew these activities were only suggestions and that our colleagues across the country could easily come up with their own assessments. As professionals, teachers choose those teaching and learning activities that best suit the needs of their students.
We also knew that the original thirty-nine national standards (twenty-six of which involve in varying degrees the study of Asia) were voluntary. There is no federal mandate for any of the standards projects to be implemented. The standards books are not textbooks, nor do they present extended narrative essays on all the history knowledge American students should have. They simply serve as guidelines and a resource for teachers and curriculum writers to consult, to assess their value, to draw from them what they find useful, to adapt them to their lesson plans, and to leave the rest aside.