Atlas, James. "Ways to Look at the Past (Or Did It Really Happen?)" New York Times, 13
November 1994, p. C3.
The charges are as familiar as the names. Last month the National Center for History in the
Schools, an affiliation of teachers and administrators, released a volume entitled "National
Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience," the first of two
guidebooks on the teaching of history in grades 5 through 12; the second volume, "World
History: Exploring Paths to the Present," was issued last week. Sponsored by the University of
California at Los Angeles, finances by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the
Department of Education, advised by distinguished professors across the land, the guides have
managed to provoke instant controversy.
In the conservative corner: Lynne Cheney, head of the humanities endowment when the grant
was approved, denouncing them as "politically correct to a fare-thee-well," and the Old
Testament columnist Charles Krauthammer, thundering against "the denigration of learning
itself." In the liberal - or radical - corner: the feminist historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a
consultant on the project who deplored the fact that had become "politicized," and Eric Foner, a
historian of the American left, who complained that "pressure groups from the right demand a
political correctness of their own."
In the middle are the conscientious, intermittently dutiful and imaginative guidebooks, efforts to
establish some standard of learning at a moment when American students' knowledge of history
has reached a new low. But the polarized climate of academic discourse, it was perhaps
inevitable that any effort to codify what students ought to know would become a battle.
To be sure, the National Standards volumes betray certain tics identifiable as academic chic: a
destain for "the passive absorption of facts, dates, names and places"; a preoccupation with
"narratives," as if history were a branch of folklore; a determination to avoid "value-laden
issues" for fear of being found "elitist" or "hierarchical." And the language often mimics current
lit-crit jargon: "The Tempest" for instance, is an opportunity to explore "the prevailing attitude
toward cross-cultural contracts with new people - encountering the ‘other.'" (As for the "31 Main
Understandings" that students are supposed to master, they sound like something out of the
The guides will no doubt be hotly debated for months. Does Mercy Otis Warren deserve pride of
place beside Samuel Adams and Tom Paine? Why six references to Harriet Tubman and not one
to Robert E. Lee? When the authors of "World History" as students to study "changing gender
roles during the Renaissance and Reformation," to "role-play a discussion between an
upper-class Hindu and a Muslim about their reaction to British presence in India in the late 19th
century," it's not hard to imagine the responses they invite. But the method is true to the spirit of
the enterprise: namely, that our understanding of history is subject to change.
Revision is the essence of history-writing. As Alan Brinkley, a professor of history at Columbia
who participated in a focus group for the National Standards project, points out, many scholars
now believe that ending World War II didn't require the dropping atomic bombs on Japan; the
1950s were characterized as much by racism and McCarthyist repression as by suburban bliss.
"There's never a moment when a historical question is settled, about which over time there is not
some debate," Mr. Brinkley said. "The process of revising the reinterpreting history is what
historical scholarship is all about."
To look back at history is, in a sense, to look back at the writing of history. An entire generation
of historians, from Avery Craven to J. G. Randall, interpreted the Civil War as an "avoidable
conflict." In the 1960s, diplomatic historians like Gar Alperowitz, Gabriel Kolko and Walter
Lefeber maintained that the cold war was more than a response to Soviet aggression; the United
States had its own global designs. "You can name virtually any field of history and find
revisionists," Mr. Brinkley said. "There were New Deal revisionists, Lincoln revisionists,
In emphasizing formerly "disenfranchised" peoples and cultures, the authors echo the revisionist
progressive historiography abroad in the land, which cases American in a grim, even malevolent
light. When Columbus's discovery was marked a century ago, as Richard Bernstein wrote in his
new hook, "Dictatorship of Virtue," the nation was celebrating its own founding, "the starting
point for a prolonged epic of freedom, progress, and, not incidentally, the subjugation of ‘savage
tribes.'" The quincentennial, he noted, was "close to the inverse of the quatercentenary," an
occasion for soul-searching about collective national crimes.
Even the vantage of the historian has been revised. The old history, "history from above,"
scrutinized kings, presidents, political leaders and thinkers. The New History, as it's known in
the trade, looks at the anonymous masses: slaves, peasants, ordinary citizens. Popular culture, the
plight of women and the oppressed have become a legitimate subject of inquiry.
There is nothing new in this. Radical interpretations of history - especially others' history - are
themselves a natural development in historiography. "It's all too easy to idealize a social
upheaval which takes place in some other country than one's own," wrote Edmund Wilson in the
introduction to a new edition of his classic, "To The Finland Station," seeking to justify his
sympathetic portraits of revolutionary figures who had since been discredited. "So Englishmen
like Wordsorth and Charles James Fox may have idealized the French Revolution, and so men
like Lafayette may have idealized our American one."
As any student of psychoanalysis knows, idealization leads to desecration. What goes up must
come down. The current fashion for questioning the old historical "narratives" may well come to
be seen as symptomatic of an era when history was in the grip of a fanatical reformist zeal. Why,
future historians might wonder, was historical scholarship in the 90s so out of step with its
times? Why was it so militantly progressive when the mood of the country was so conservative?
(Witness last week's election results." Was it because liberal ideology had become so
"marginalized" that the only place it could find was in the academy?
Just asking. The point is that revision itself is no bad thing. As Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. argued
in "The Cycles of American History," it's "an essential part of the process by which history,
through the posing of new problems and the investigation of new possibilities, enlarges its
perspectives and enriches its insights. All history is revisionist.
Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, "The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it."