Publication Date

November 1, 2003

Perspectives Section


The discipline of history, once confined to playing marginal roles in academe and often enveloped by the all-embracing cloak of “social studies,” is suddenly at center stage. As disturbing reports continue to be issued by various education think tanks of all political persuasions about the state of history education in this country, the White House and Congress have responded by advancing a number of legislative initiatives designed to strengthen the teaching of American history at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels. The “Teaching American History” initiative of Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the “Graduate Opportunities in Higher Education Act of 2003” proposed by Representative Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the “American History and Civics Education Act” initiated by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the “Higher Education for Freedom Act of 2003” proposed by Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), and the “We the People” initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities, all seek to reform the teaching of American history. Significantly, the majority of these initiatives focus—implicitly or explicitly—upon “traditional” American history. In doing so, they raise the questions, not only about what is meant by that term, but more important, about the political implications of this new emphasis being given to the so-called traditional American history. It will be instructive, therefore, to examine these various initiatives with a view to discerning the nature of the politics behind the legislative measures.

The Meaning of “Traditional” American History

Even in its relatively short existence, Senator Byrd’s “Teaching American History” initiative is having a significant impact on how American history is taught in many school districts across the nation. In recent months, other well-meaning members of Congress have introduced their own bills, also designed to strengthen the teaching of what is broadly termed as “traditional” American history. The objectives of some of the pending bills are laudable. Others, however, seem to focus less on advancing the teaching of the broadest scope of American history (political, economic, social, and comparative history) and instead appear to be crafted to provide students with a particular view and interpretation of American history.

To many members of Congress—and not just the so-called conservative members, but also some considered to be among the most liberal of persuasions—what is commonly referred to as “traditional” American history is typically the chronological presentation of factual information that stresses a “March of Progress” perspective. Legislative definitions usually focus on “key episodes, turning points, and leading figures” as they relate to the “constitutional, political, intellectual, economic and [diplomatic] history” and related “issues and trends that have shaped the course of American history.” More often than not, the goal of teaching “traditional” American history is to teach young people about our nation’s “democratic traditions,” and about our “common heritage of freedom and civilization.” The implicit objectives of several bills are to instill patriotic fervor in students, and to ensure that in the future these young adults will be able to “fulfill the fundamental responsibilities of citizens in a democracy” and understand that America is the product of “binding together a diverse people into a single nation with a common purpose.”

To this end, teaching “traditional” American history is defined not so much by what it is, but rather by what it is not: It is not, members of Congress say, “value-laden ‘revisionist’ history”—that body of scholarly inquiry that encompasses “social” history (in some cases even the story of immigrant groups and women is thus suspect). It is not anything that smacks of comparative world history, and it is certainly not any topic that deals with that “subversive holy trinity” that conservatives in particular believe dominates scholarly discourse at the collegiate level—“race, class, and gender.”

The “Teaching American History” Initiative

Senator Byrd’s “Teaching American History” grants initiative was the first to emphasize the use of the term “traditional” American history. Clearly, when he created the program, Senator Byrd had no partisan political agenda in advocating support for what he thought needed to be taught in the classroom. He just wanted to see elementary and secondary schools return to the teaching of “traditional” American history—a history rich in content and context that was to be contrasted from what he considered an overly broad and amorphous subject area of “social studies” that in his opinion was receiving too much emphasis at the expense of the teaching of history.

Since the establishment of the senator’s initiative about four years ago, the program has become well established in the Department of Education (DoE). It continues to bring more than $100 million a year to elementary and secondary school districts across the nation. Grant applications are peer reviewed by educators including practicing professional historians and, except in a handful of instances, political considerations appear to have been kept out of the selection process.

The “Graduate Opportunities in Higher Education Act”

An amendment to legislation (H.R. 3076) introduced by Rep. Pete Hoekstra seeks to amend Title VII of the Higher Education Act of 1965 to include $10 million in new money for postsecondary “traditional” American history education programs in the nation’s colleges and universities. The bill is currently under consideration by the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

The language inserted into Hoekstra’s bill seeks to allocate funds for academic programs including graduate and undergraduate courses, seminars, and lectures; support of research and development of teaching materials for faculty development; and academic programs that support the teaching of “traditional American history.” In this instance, the definition of “traditional” American history is among the broadest definitions found in the various legislative initiatives currently pending in Congress. The bill is noncontroversial, has bipar tisan support, and is expected to be enacted during this Congress.

While most of the other bills pending before Congress focus on teaching at the elementary and secondary levels, this measure promises a much-needed shot in the arm to history education at the postsecondary level.

The “American History and Civics Education Act of 2003”

Senator Lamar Alexander’s “American History and Civics Education Act of 2003” (S. 504) seeks to establish summer academies for elementary and secondary school teachers and students of American history and civics, and creates a national “clearinghouse” that will facilitate interaction among teachers of those subjects.

Senator Alexander introduced his measure in his maiden speech on the Senate floor in February 2002. More than willing to embrace the ideas of the former DoE secretary (Alexander was secretary of education, 1991–93, in the first Bush administration), the Republican leadership in the Senate endorsed the bill and its conservative, somewhat value-laden notion of "traditional" American history. Alexander secured the bipartisan support of his Senate colleagues, and rushed the proposal through a hearing that was hastily conducted by the Senate Committee on Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions (HELP) that he chaired.

During the hearing, historian David McCullough and Senator Byrd both testified in support of the bill. They spoke favorably of its broad objectives, but diplomatically avoided addressing the legislation's more problematic provisions. No national historical organizations were invited to testify and Alexander's staff did not express any desire to meet with representatives of the professional historical community after the hearing. Historians familiar with the bill’s provisions embraced its broad objectives but considered aspects of the measure as flawed and problematic. The bill was rushed to the floor of the Senate, which authorized expenditures of up to $25 million per year for fiscal years 2004 and 2005. After the bill passed the Senate it was referred to the House Education Committee for consideration.

When the bill reached the House, the National Humanities Alliance as well as history organizations and other traditional supporters of NEH had their first opportunity to formally voice concerns about the provisions of S. 504. They raised a number of concerns: (1) the specific and narrow descriptions of the term “traditional” history that was mandated to be taught; (2) the fact that the proposed teacher academies imperfectly duplicate aspects of the Senator Byrd’s “Teaching American History” grant program currently administered by the DoE; (3) the questionable benefits of funding summer academies for students at the expense of the much-needed academies for new history teachers, which have a much greater multiplier effect in reaching students over several years; (4) the creation of a vaguely defined private clearinghouse funded by taxpayers that would seem to duplicate existing organizations; and finally (5) that the legislation constitutes the first authorization (albeit partial) of the NEH in 10 years and is therefore a major public policy initiative but one that is being enacted without adequate hearings or other opportunity for public input and discussion. Largely because of its emphasis on student academies and not teacher education, some history advocates consider that Alexander’s bill, unless modified significantly, will at best have marginal impact on the overall goal of raising the level of history education in the nation.

The “We the People” Initiative of the NEH

Unlike the Alexander bill, the “We The People” (WTP) program was more thoughtfully conceived. Early in his term as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bruce Cole, in consultation with history and humanities professionals from a diverse political spectrum and with high-level Bush administration officials, developed the “We the People” program for improving the teaching of American history to American students on all levels. The initiative was to work as a parallel program—one with a slightly different emphasis from the Department of Education’s “Teaching American History” initiative championed by Senator Byrd—and WTP required no separate funding beyond the normal NEH appropriations. Byrd’s program is targeted to improving the teaching of history at the local secondary-school level while the NEH program would allocate funds for more highly visible secondary-school history programs at the national level. Most important, WTP funding was to cut across all program areas within the NEH.

The WTP initiative found strong support within the humanities community as an expanded effort within NEH to strengthen American history and civics education. Historians and other scholars, teachers, state humanities council leaders, librarians, museums professionals, and others rallied to the support of the comprehensive approach of the administration’s WTP initiative, because it would fund projects to strengthen K-12 education, museum and preservation programs, academic research and scholarship, and state council outreach to the public. Humanities organizations considered that the broad approach envisioned in the WTP program was critical to achieving increased knowledge and awareness of American history and civics for students, teachers, parents, and Americans at all levels of learning throughout the country.

The Alexander Bill or the “We the People” Initiative?

Although Senator Alexander is said to have assured NEH officials in March 2003 that he would not seek to divert the “We the People” initiative funding, once his bill cleared the Senate floor that is exactly what he did. The senator began pressing the White House for a diversion of most if not all of the WTP funds away from the NEH in order fund his initiative.

The National Coalition for History (NCH) and the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) on behalf of their member organizations, sent letters to House and Senate Appropriations Committee members urging conferees either “to seek an outcome that accommodates the breadth and flexibility” of the NEH “We the People” initiative or (as the NCH argued) appropriate the full $25 million for the “We the People” program as originally requested by the administration.

At this writing (early October 2003) a “discussion draft” of a revised Alexander bill has been prepared by the House committee reflecting the White House’s funding plans that in essence would solidify Alexander’s funding scheme. The plan, apparently, is to pass the revised legislation in the House and then have the Senate quietly agree to the House version. Whether the upper chamber will agree to the revised funding plan remains unclear.

The “Higher Education for Freedom Act” Another initiative that seeks to reform the teaching of “traditional” American history is that of Senator Gregg. On July 31, 2003, Senator Gregg, who has long taken an interest in the teaching of American history, introduced his bill, the “Higher Education for Freedom Act” (S. 1515), aiming “to establish and strengthen post-secondary programs and courses in the subjects of traditional American history, free institutions, and Western civilization.” This bill is the first congressional measure in recent years designed to encourage the teaching of both U.S. history and Western civilization in American colleges and universities.

Senator Gregg introduced his bill in part because of the findings of several recent studies that show that most colleges and universities no longer require systematic study of U.S. history or of Western civilization as a prerequisite to actuation. Gregg wanted to see that changed. The senator believes that “without a common civic memory . . . the people in the United States risk losing much of what it means to be an American, as well as the ability to fulfill the fundamental responsibilities of citizens in a democracy.”

Gregg’s bill places emphasis on “content mastery” by making grants to academic and nonprofit institutions to promote and sustain postsecondary academic centers, institutions, and programs targeted to undergraduates and graduates; to secondary-school teachers in need of additional training; and to postsecondary faculty who wish to enhance subject matter expertise in what is characterized in the legislation as “traditional American history” (that is, “the significant constitutional, political, intellectual, economic, and foreign policy trends and issues that have shaped the course of American history”). The bill seeks $140 million for fiscal 2004 and “such sums as may be necessary for each of the succeeding five fiscal years.”

The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions for consideration. Representatives of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Coalition for History have met several times with Senator Gregg’s staff and have offered suggestions to broaden the scope of the bill and strengthen its various teaching history provisions. The chances are that Senator Gregg’s bill will be wrapped into a broader education reform package.

What’s in Store for the Future?

More than any administration in recent memory, the Bush administration has clearly demonstrated its desire to reform the teaching of American history. Yet, for all the rhetoric, except for insisting that the Alexander bill be funded with NEH funds, the White House has made little effort to coordinate the various pending legislative efforts, even though virtually all of them have been spearheaded by Republican members of Congress. The White House’s undermining of the support it had initially given for the full funding of the “We the People” program in deference to Senator Alexander’s bill is illustrative of the administration’s politics-driven decision making.

In the end, the fate of all these legislative initiatives largely rests with Congress. And like so many issues Congress addresses each year, it will be left to well-meaning members of the House and Senate to advance those programs for which they can garner sufficient political support for enactment. Undoubtedly, the term “traditional” American history appears to have acquired a patriotic potency that will ensure passage of any number of history-related bills. Despite the pejorative connotations that some academics may see in the term “traditional” as it applies to the teaching of American history and Western civilization in the various bills now pending before Congress, much can be done to benefit history teaching within the mutable framework of these arguably malleable terms.

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