Publication Date

March 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

K–12 Education, Teaching & Learning


State & Local (US)

The statement of the Committee of Scholars in Defense of History, which appeared in Perspectives, October 1990, has been criticized on two grounds. Some believe that the statement opposes multiculturalism; others complain about the committee’s rejection of the idea that history should be used to raise children’s self-esteem and ethnic pride. Both criticisms are flawed.

The committee’s statement explicitly endorses a multicultural, pluralistic interpretation of American history, defined as unam e pluribus. The signers unequivocally declared their support “for such shamefully neglected fields as the history of women, of immigration and of minorities” and for “honest and conscientious scholarship [that] accurately portray[s] the forging of this nation from the experiences of many different groups and peoples.” Among the signers are many whose work have contributed to contemporary understanding of the pluralistic nature of American society—Thomas Bender, Robert Caro, Kenneth B. Clark, David Herbert Donald, Frances Fitzgerald and many more.

The committee does indeed oppose the idea that history should be used as “social and psychological therapy” whose function is to raise children’s self-esteem and ethnic pride. I write now as an individual, and not on behalf of the committee, to explain my own paradoxical view: that the purpose of teaching history is not to raise self-esteem and ethnic pride, even though all kinds of people may find that the study of history provides a source of self-esteem and ethnic pride.

The committee’s statement was drafted in response to a report to the State Commissioner of Education in New York State that denounced the state curriculum as “biased” and “Eurocentric.” The group that reached this conclusion included no historians or teachers of history or social studies.

The report claimed that the state curriculum should be revised in order to raise the self-esteem of children from minority cultures and to reduce the “arrogant perspective” of “children from European cultures.” The history portion of this allegedly biased state curriculum had been revised in 1987 and reviewed before publication by Eric Foner, Christopher Lasch, and Hazel Hertzberg, among others. Far from being Eurocentric, the 1987 curriculum reduced the time available to study Western Europe from one year to only one-quarter of a year (the same coverage allotted to Africa, Latin America, and four other regions).

Some people in the education profession believe that history (or social studies) should have as its central purpose the boosting of children’s self-esteem and ethnic pride. The effort to do this, I believe, opens a Pandora’s Box from which fly exaggeration, falsification, ethnic antagonism, censorship, and infringement of academic freedom. The effort to satisfy demands for ethnic self-esteem leads not to multiculturalism but to ethnocentric curricula.

One example of the new ethnocentrism is the current movement in major cities for an Afrocentric curriculum. This movement is not built on the work of such historians as Eric Foner, John Hope Franklin, and Leon Litwack. Instead, the most widely used source is the Portland (Oregon) African-American Baseline Essays, which hold that Egypt was a black civilization, that everything we know and study today (mathematics, science, philosophy, religion, etc.) originated in Egypt, and that everything the Greeks knew was stolen from Egypt. Although about half the material in the essays is about ancient Egypt, none of the essay writers is an Egyptologist, according to Frank Yurco, an Egyptologist at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Yurco, who reviewed the Portland Essays, noted that the author of the social studies essay systematically disregarded anything written by white historians or white Egyptologists, as well as the studies of blacks in classical antiquity by Frank M. Snowden, Jr., Howard University.

The new California curriculum (adopted in 1987) is history-centered and teaches a multicultural, pluralistic understanding of American history. In addition, there are three required years of world history, which include major units on civilizations in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. Ethics and democratic values are a unifying theme, and students are continually encouraged to pay attention to the rights and roles of women and minorities in every society they study. Since numerous studies showed that many history textbooks had eliminated religion to avoid controversy, the curriculum restores the study of world religions, in order to understand the value-systems of different cultures as well as to see the role of religion as a source of social conflict.

The major goals of teaching history, according to this curriculum, are to promote thoughtful understanding of the connections among the past, present, and future; to reflect on the complexity of causes and consequences; to understand continuity and change; to perceive the similarities and differences among civilizations around the world; and to develop in students the ability to analyze events and ideas critically.

Even before the curriculum was approved by the State Board of Education, the effort to convert it into a vehicle for self-esteem and ethnic pride began. One group after another demanded that the curriculum show that its forebears had suffered more than anyone else in history or tried to excise any positive references to its enemies.

But it was not only ethnic groups that sought to achieve narrow political ends through the history curriculum. In a meeting between the writers and members of the State Board, a board member insisted that the state curriculum declare that a “normal” family has a mother, father, and children. We refused. He wanted to “send a message to the Gays in San Francisco.” Fortunately, the representative from the State Department of Education supported our resistance.

After the curriculum was adopted with only minor changes in 1987, Houghton Mifflin engaged Gary Nash, University of California, Los Angeles, and others to write a K–8 social studies series for the California schools. A leading social historian, Nash directed the creation of a set of American and world history textbooks that is thoroughly multicultural and pluralistic. After a lengthy professional review process by historians and social studies teachers, the state curriculum commission recommended the Houghton Mifflin books for statewide adoption. The commission concluded that the books were the best on the market, especially because of their close attention to African-American and women’s history and the history of previously neglected groups.

But when the State Board of Education held hearings, angry protesters assailed the textbooks and insisted that they would destroy the self-esteem and pride of virtually every group of children that might use them.

Although black historians testified at the state board’s hearings that the textbooks’ coverage of black history was exemplary, demonstrators representing an Afrocentric perspective claimed that the books would cause “textbook genocide.” Fundamentalist Christians objected to the inclusion of mythology. Jewish speakers objected to the representation of ancient Hebrew history. Moslem critics complained about the portrayal of Islam, objecting, for example, to a historically accurate painting of an Islamic warrior with raised scimitar; this illustration, they claimed, would lead to stereotyping of Moslems as “terrorists.”

The single theme that persistently ran through the hearings was that critics did not want anything taught that offended members of their group; whatever was taught, they claimed, must have a positive effect on the self-esteem and pride of their group. Its portrayal in the books must be laudatory, and all individuals must be inspiring role models, otherwise the group might be defamed and subject to negative stereotyping. Some protesters insisted that only a member of their group could be trusted to write its history.

Despite the virulent attacks on the new books, the State Board of Education approved them in the fall of 1990, and now the campaign against them has shifted to the local districts. The fate of the books still hangs in the balance, and other publishers are watching with interest to see what happens to a series of textbooks that deal directly with religion, ethnicity, and other controversial issues. The grave sin of the textbooks is that they ran afoul of the contemporary demand to present every culture and religion in a celebratory fashion.

If history is to be defined as a celebration of particular groups, absent of any critical perspectives, then publishers will be greatly tempted to exercise self-censorship. It may be impossible to teach the participation of Africans and Arabs in the slave trade, because their descendents find such references objectionable. It may no longer be possible to teach about human sacrifice and slavery in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, because their descendents might complain. The only villains in the history-for-self-esteem movement, it turns out, are white males, because they are not an oppressed minority.

While it is dangerous to turn history into a feel-good course, it is also the case that history provides people of all races, genders, and creeds with knowledge of ideas, individuals, and events that may make them feel stronger and freer. African American history, women’s history, gay history, and other cultural studies are sources of valuable social knowledge. However, to say that one can find inspiration in the struggles and accomplishments of those who have gone before is quite different from declaring that the purpose of teaching history is to build self-esteem and ethnic pride and that whatever does not serve those ends must be suppressed.

It is natural to look for examples of courage to guide us as we build our lives. However, it is not necessary that we find role models who match ourselves in every important respect. Why should not a man be inspired by Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s fierce intellect? Why should not a white person be inspired by Frederick Douglass’s eloquence? Why should not a black person be inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s self-education? Why should not a heterosexual person be inspired by Harvey Milk’s wit and courage?

It seems to me, as I reflect on the variety of ways that people have found to humiliate and kill other people throughout history, sometimes of their own group, sometimes of another group that differs by color or creed, that history provides as much cause for humility as for pride. And that we human beings need both humility and pride, as well as the capacity to look unflinchingly at the causes of hatred and social conflict.

Cosmetic surgery, I have heard, makes people feel better about themselves; their self-esteem rises when their wrinkles and age-marks are removed. But take the warts out of history, deny historians their ability to study and teach it critically, and what will remain? It may be soothing and uplifting, and it may be popular but it won’t be history anymore.

Diane Ravitch is an adjunct professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.