Forum on Who Owns History?

History in the Classroom

Gary B. Nash, October 1996

Ownership is a word that has been used frequently in recent years as a key concept in the culture wars. It is a useful concept, and I have employed it for more than a decade in talking with teachers of history in the schools. They find it revealing and empowering to think about the redistribution of intellectual property in history that has come about in recent decades as a result of a historic transformation of the history profession. I remind teachers of Plato's dictum that those who tell the stories also hold the power. Hence, when the AHA becomes more broadly constituted by people from many parts of society whose parents and grandparents would never have been members, then the stories, perforce, become more inclusive, more complex, and therefore—in their totality—different.

For hard-core conservatives in the culture wars the term "ownership"—as in "who owns history?"—is a telltale term. It brings to mind women, people of color, sons and daughters of the working class, and even some liberal or radical white males who have no regard for truth in history, no desire to pursue historical objectivity, but simply want a piece of the action to carry out their political agendas. These groups, according to the conservatives, care little about the nation's venerable and heroic history, the history that the conservatives want young Americans to learn.

Thus, in the context of the controversy that arose over the National History Standards, conservatives have frequently used phrases such as "history thieves" and "hijacking history," raising in the public mind the idea that a fixed history, true and blue, was stolen, pirated, and replaced by a less objective and much-politicized history. For Lynne Cheney, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and leader of attacks on the National History Standards, revisionist history as embodied in the history standards is, apocalyptically, "the end of history." The current Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, similarly criticized the national standards, arguing that "from 1607 until 1965, America had one continuous civilization built around a set of commonly accepted legal and cultural principles. From the Jamestown colony [Virginia] and the Pilgrims, through Tocqueville's Democracy in America up to Norman Rockwell's paintings of the 1940s and 1950s there was a clear sense of what it meant to be an American." Gingrich avers that since 1965 "there has been a calculated effort by cultural elites to discredit the [American] civilization and replace it with a culture of irresponsibility that is incompatible with American freedoms as we have known them."

Whatever the significance of 1965, if Gingrich holds the historical revisionism of the last several decades as "a calculated effort" to discredit the way that Americans have been taught history, he is correct in at least one particular—that professional historians have indeed brought forward mountains of evidence to undermine earlier versions of history. But this should not be seen as surprising or out of the ordinary.

Since Thucydides, Herodotus, Livy, and Tacitus, history has been continually rewritten and reinterpreted. Without new questions and without reformulation, history would die as a discipline. The same would be true for physics, political science, and psychology. Recent revisionist work in history has been created by those interested in a culture of responsibility that is compatible with American freedoms rather than the other way around.

What teacher today would think that historian Samuel Eliot Morison's description of slavery was responsible and compatible with American freedoms: "Sambo, whose wrongs moved the abolitionists to wrath and tears . . . suffered less than any other class in the South from its ‘peculiar institution.' . . . The majority of slaves were . . . apparently happy. . . . There was much to be said for slavery as a transitional status between barbarism and civilization." What teacher today would label Kenneth Stampp, Herbert Gutman, Charles Joyner, John Blassingame, and a host of other revisionist historians who have overturned earlier pictures of slavery as cultural elitists interested in pushing a "culture of irresponsibility" on unknowing young students?

Expanding the terms of the argument, is social history a part of the "culture of irresponsibility"? One would be hard put to imagine why historians would be interested in fostering irresponsibility. Historians have warts like people in other professions, and they are as capable as bankers and chiropractors of pettiness, backbiting, and self-interest. But social historians, collectively, have been in the business of recapturing parts of the American past about which we have suffered historical amnesia, and these historians are overwhelmingly of the view that revising history through greater inclusion of forgotten Americans is much more likely to promote greater unity among widely diverse Americans than the old master narratives that demeaned or ignored African Americans, Native Americans, women, and other groups. Will not Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans, as well as African Americans and ordinary people who toil in mills and mines, on farms and assembly lines, be more likely to feel less alienated from the American past when they see that their own predecessors contributed in important ways to the nation's development? And won't that benefit all Americans who believe in e pluribus unum?

Returning to the controversy over the National History Standards, we can consider again the question of "who owns history." Since the standards are meant to provide a framework built out of the most respected and responsible scholarship of recent decades—a framework that is available for school districts and states to use in revamping their curriculums in the interest of greater historical literacy—they can be regarded as an important piece of intellectual property. Hence it is fair to ask how this property was created and who invested intellectual capital in its construction.

Rush Limbaugh's millions of television and radio listeners heard that the National History Standards were created by "a secret group at UCLA." On the stump, Pat Buchanan assured dozens of crowds that they were the work of bead-wearing, sandaled, leftover radicals from the 1960s who want their children to turn out just like them. John Fonte, Cheney's spokesperson, claimed that I was the "principal architect" of the history standards, though Fonte knew that this was not true. It is common knowledge that the standards were written by three task forces of teachers, drawn equally from elementary, middle, and high schools. These teachers worked with a battery of historians in world and United States history, and the resulting collaborative work was reviewed, draft by draft, by more than 30 national organizations. Included among these organizations were the AHA, the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the National Council for Social Studies, the American Catholic Educational Association, the American Association of School Librarians, and the American Association for State and Local History. Overseeing the entire operation, mediating differing advice for revision and restructuring, was a national council of 30 members drawn from the major organizations involved and supplemented by noted scholars and highly respected teachers from Alaska to Florida. Many of the members of the national council were nominated by Lynne Cheney herself.

If the last half-century has witnessed a redistribution of the property in history, the attempts to build a broad consensus behind a set of national history standards is assuredly a part of this redistribution. As Carol Gluck of Columbia University, a member of the national council, put it: "If the standards were hijacked at all, they were hijacked by America, through an admirable process of open debate that could probably only happen in the United States."1 It is instructive to compare how the National History Standards—which, it ought to be remembered, are curricular guidelines, not textbooks—were created with how the AHA's Commission on the Social Sciences developed a 16-volume report on history in the schools 60 years ago. The AHA commission involved many eminent members, including Charles Beard, Howard K. Beale, Merle Curti, and Bessie Louise Pierce. But teachers were notable mainly by their absence. Collaboration between scholarly historians and teachers in the schools was certainly implicit in the effort, but the project was a thoroughly top-down affair, with teachers thought of as the recipients of the scholars' judgments and advice on history education. By contrast, teachers at all levels were intimately involved in the construction of the National History Standards, and the nine focus groups asked to critique them represented a mix of history educators from elementary and high schools, liberal arts colleges, research universities, and other institutions.

One of the most serious dangers to the success of the National History Standards is the disingenuous populism of the far right. Those who hate the National History Standards claim that the standards are the work of cultural elitists, not of a broadly constituted profession that has realized the worst nightmares of AHA president Carl Bridenbaugh, who, 40 years ago, lamented the "Great Mutation" in the profession. The favorite tactic of ultraconservatives in discrediting the standards is to say that the expertise of historians and master teachers is not to be trusted. It was a mistake, argues Chester Finn, an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education under President Reagan, to put "panels of experts and academics" in charge of writing standards. "Sure, mathematicians deserve a place at the math standards-setting table and—gulp—maybe historians should have a bit to say about any future history standards. But they must be in the minority. . . . If standards are to have any chance of public acceptance, most of the people setting them should be bus drivers, policemen, shopkeepers, engineers, preachers, and orthodontists. They are the people who need to say what skills and knowledge are essential for their state or community."2

This "trashing of professionalism" by the right, as journalist Louis Menand has called it, equates elitism with disciplinary or professional expertise. Menand is on target in writing that "the attack on professionals looks rather blatantly like a short-term political tactic masquerading as a campaign for greater democracy." "Fake populism," he warns us, "is as dangerous as real authoritarianism."3
Anti-intellectualism has a long history, as we know, but the latest outbreak of it, I venture, will not figure importantly in the long run in comparison with the building of the bridges that have begun to connect three communities of history educators—teachers in the schools, professors in colleges and universities, and public historians in museums and historical societies—who have long been separated by formidable chasms. Over the past few decades, historians in colleges and universities have come into contact with teachers of history in the schools in a variety of ways: through NEH summer seminars, through the History Teachers Alliance, through the energetic efforts of the AHA and the OAH to involve school teachers in organizational committees and annual meeting programs, through National History Day, through the new National Council for History Education, and, most recently, through the creation of the National History Standards. While this has been happening, albeit slowly, research historians have collaborated with curators to bring history alive through museum and historical society exhibitions for the general public. This linking of these two kinds of history educators would be baseless if the expertise of research historians was not thought fruitful for museum directors who subscribe to the credo of the Association of American Museums, which states, "Museums are places where the members of a pluralistic society may contemplate, reflect, and learn, and where we may examine not only the evidence of what affirms our values, but at times what challenges them."

Though historians have been amazed and dismayed at the attacks on the National History Standards—indeed on the history profession itself—they will do well to remember Thomas Hardy's motto, "The rages of the ages will inform." There can be no doubt that history is hot. The amount of ink spilled in debates over the proposed Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian and about the National History Standards is evidence enough. The profession thus has an unusual opportunity to further the building of bridges among history educators and to converse with the public (whose antennae are already quivering) about the nature of historical research and historical revision. Never has the property in history been more widely distributed than it is today—an exciting prospect for those who believe in democratized professions that are open to talent but also believe that professions are not at war with the common wisdom and are not inegalitarian shams but are one of the best hopes for reaching broad areas of consensus in American life.

—Gary B. Nash is professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles and former president of the Organization of American Historians.


1. New York Times, 19 November 1994.

2. Education Week, 14 February 1996, 34.

3. New York York Times Magazine, 15 March 5, 41–42.