Impressionable Minds: Teaching Politically Correct History

I am sitting in front of my computer in Washington, D.C. The electricity is on, and lights shine overhead; outside, I hear planes, trains, automobiles. Down the street, not far from where I live, are the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

None of this would be remarkable except that the purveyors of politically correct history have declared that it never could have happened. All these inventions, which surround our lives, are of “Euro-American derivation,” that is, they derive from inventions by “dead white European males.” American history, the PC historians say, is not the story of the triumph of Western European technology or its political institutions. Instead, American history is the result of the “convergence of peoples”—from Europe, to be sure, but also from East Asia, Africa, and, long before, Native Americans across the Bering Straight.

I have no problem—no true student of history does— with acknowledging the gifts of Asians and Africans to the development of the United States. No one can deny that their positive contributions have often been ignored. Asian labor—grossly under-compensated—helped build the transcontinental railroad. African labor—before 1865, almost completely slave-based built the cotton industry. Native Americans, mostly under-compensated, were here well before us (although there’s an argument about whether someone was here before them). One can grant that a “convergence of peoples” built America.

But moderate as well as conservative historians have come to the conclusion that convergence theory and PC history have some serious problems. One is civic: A corollary of the belief in the equivalent importance of the contribution of each of the “converging peoples” is multiculturalism, not E Pluribus Unum. America has been enriched by many ethnicities; however, if we have more than one culture, we may not, in the long run, have one nation. You cannot uproot a nation’s laws and customs from the soil in which they’ve grown for centuries and expect them to continue to bear fruit.

There is yet another, more fundamental problem. Convergence theory does not explain the technology by which we work, learn, travel, and live longer than ever before. It does not account for the House or Senate, the Constitution, or the First Amendment. To explain these, you must return to English parliamentarianism, the Magna Carta, maybe even the Athenian agora.

The fact is, we live in a world primarily shaped by what PC historians call “Euro-American” ideas. If one simply analyzes how we transport ourselves, each of our primary means—the steam engine, electrical locomotion, the internal combustion engine, gas-powered engines mounted on wings, jets—are all Euro-American inventions. Computers (the first, it’s argued, invented by Byron’s daughter, of all people) are of Euro-American derivation. Our medicine has been enriched by the rediscovery of pre-Enlightenment uses of herbs and acupuncture from China and relaxation therapies from the East; we would, however, be lost in the Dark Ages without Pasteur, Salk, and Fleming.

This doesn’t mean that non-Euro-American cultures are without value or that their study is worthless. Nor does it mean that Euro-American civilization is morally perfect; no Christian could say that of anything human. Nevertheless, it is simply true that PC historians are teaching young students not just something politically objectionable but also something far worse: They are not teaching history at all. For all their knowledge of separate and discrete facts, they’ve let their premises drive them to unscholarly, non-historical conclusions. Knowledge may be power, but knowledge, in this instance, is certainly not wisdom. As an embarrassed history professor said in the Los Angeles Times after September 11, “It is time to admit that this generation of historians—with some notable exceptions—has yet to deliver to students and to the public a usable and balanced interpretation of the past.”

Rewriting History

History teaching has taken some heavy hits lately, not the least of which has been the reduction in classroom hours devoted to it in kindergarten to twelfth grade. The remaining time has been squandered on loosely defined “social studies,” an offshoot of “convergence” theory that exposes students to feel-good sociology rather than knowledge of events, facts, and chronology, which form the backbone of historical knowledge.

Another problem is closely related: The history now taught in schools is often ideologically motivated revisionism. Signs of this are everywhere, though one example will have to suffice: Recently, during the period marking the dedication of the World War II Memorial on the Mall, the Washington Post did a story on knowledge of the Second World War among Virginia high-schoolers. What did the students know? A little bit about Hitler; a bit on the Holocaust. Nothing on Mussolini. Nothing on Japanese Fascism, or the rape of Nanking, or the victimization of Korea, or the willful destruction of Manila in 1945. But students were well informed about the Nisei—the Japanese Americans interned by Roosevelt at the beginning of World War II.

Was the Nisei episode an injustice? Of course. Have we acknowledged as much? Yes. Have we compensated the survivors and heirs? Yes. But what scholar would say that this is the main or most important story to come out of World War II? Even the writer for the Washington Post was shocked.

He shouldn’t have been. In a study for the American Textbook Council in 2000, historian Gilbert Sewall reviewed in depth the PC influence on history textbooks in the last decades of the 20th century. Most of the textbooks advanced one trend, summarized in the ultimate example of PC history, the so-called National History Standards of 1994. These were in part produced, ironically, by the federal government. The project started innocently enough and was part of the attempt to establish Goals 2000—a set of standards of what K-12 public-school students should know in such subjects as math, English, and history. In 1989, President George H. W. Bush endorsed Goals 2000, and the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities, under Lynne Cheney, funded the history set.

The goal was to write an inclusive history of the United States—that is, one that would enrich and expand upon the points that students have always learned about political, military, diplomatic, and scientific history—the domain of the “Dead White Euromales.” To be added was a “history from below,” the new stories of excellent and neglected achievements in women’s history, black history, ethnic history in general, and labor studies. In short, “history from above” was to meet “history from below,” so that students would be introduced to the totality of American experience.

It didn’t work out that way. After President Clinton was elected though unbeknownst to his appointees—the project took a different tack. Headed by Gary Nash, a professor of history at UCLA and an expert in African-American history, the project moved away from inclusion, enrichment, and expansion into exclusion and the denigration of dead white Euromales. Out went emphases on the Pilgrims and Williamsburg; in came long passages on Mansu Musa, a West African king whose region was decimated by the slave trade. Gone were Jefferson and Franklin, replaced with stories of friction between labor and the wealthier classes during the Revolution. On the subject of the Cold War, out went Joseph Stalin and in came Joe McCarthy, Joe McCarthy, and (surprise!) Joe McCarthy. Many of the new points were worth making, but the accumulative denigration of the dead white males was both unscholarly and unhistorical. The once noble goal of general inclusion became a left- wing mechanism to exclude the historical role of Europeans in building America.

One perfect example was the treatment of George Washington, who was hardly mentioned in the standards at all. On NBC’s Dateline, Jane Pauley asked Gary Nash what was the one thing American students should know about Washington. The answer: “He was a member of a slave- holding aristocracy.” That was it. Never mind that without Washington’s genius in leading a rag-tag militia against the greatest military power on earth, this nation would not have come to be. Forget that without his guidance in the early Federal era, the country might easily have swerved toward the extremes of either monarchy or anarchy, as France did shortly after. Indeed, without Washington, the radical poet William Blake wrote, “the Earth would have lost something of the infinite.” Radicals used to know such things.

Yes, Washington was a slaveholder. He wished, however, for an end to slavery. He sold none of his slaves out of their families and freed them at his death. Furthermore, he never asked questions about the origins of the black men in his army, and there were plenty. Washington was indeed a slaveholder, but that isn’t the whole story. Nash was speaking ideology, not history.

Such leftist bias was in full display in the content of the National Standards. In covering the Cold War, for example, the United States and the Soviet Union were presented as morally equal adversaries participating in a kind of childish “sword play.” To be sure, we can regret some of America’s political actions in the 1950s and beyond. But it’s historically untenable to deny the fact that the Cold War was rooted primarily in Stalin’s desire to subvert as much of Europe as he could. We know this. We have the Venona transcripts and other KGB documents, unsealed after 1990, to prove it. We also have the memoirs of the grandchildren of Stalin’s insiders (those who survived him) telling us how kind Uncle Joe used to talk about the inevitability of nuclear war—and how he intended to win it. In its attempt at moral equivalence, the history standards fell into plain dishonesty.

And conservatives weren’t the only ones to notice. In a rare instance of bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate voted 99-1 to condemn the standards; Ted Kennedy and the late Paul Wellstone—hardly agents of the “vast right-wing conspiracy”—even voted to reject them. Senator Joseph Lieberman roundly denounced the standards in a Senate speech. The problem, critics said, was not the noble goal of inclusion, but the unrelenting denigration of the founders and leaders of the nation. President Clinton’s Education Department—again, no beehive of conservative activists—dissociated itself from the standards. (The department actually had more luck in history than English, where the scholarly committee couldn’t even agree whether to refer to it as the “national language” or the “privileged dialect”; it disbanded shortly thereafter.)

Because of the uproar, few copies of the history standards were distributed to schools, and if they were, they came in the modified version reshaped by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Diane Ravitch, a moderate Republican and an education expert. The two made an attempt at salvaging the standards.

But problems remained. Schlesinger and Ravitch could hardly get rid of the convergence theory—it was the very basis of the whole enterprise. Although, as noted, there was some truth to it (and the neglected history of the “marginalized” that it brought to light), convergence theory couldn’t even explain the National Standards document itself. After all, the history standards were supported by the U.S. government. If convergence theory were fully true—as true as the standards’ authors said—there could be no national history standards. Indeed, there could be no nation at all, as the nation was a mere Euro-American construction. And yet the computer on which I type these words tells me that Euro-American constructions cannot be purely figments of my imagination. They have happened. They have triumphed.

The Problem Continues

Even with the limited dissemination of the National Standards, textbooks are still filled with the same kinds of PC distortions. For all the emphasis on “other” peoples and points of view, multipolarity is missing from PC history. Four different peoples are mentioned in the National Standards, but all the good is done by Asians, Africans, and Native Americans. All the evil, of course, is committed by Europeans—with the exception of their exploited genders and classes.

This same bipolar thinking affects world history as well. Throughout the standards, one finds a pervasive anti-Western bias; a condemnation of all Western involvement in Africa, the Near East, and Far East; and a complete neglect of what other nations and ethnicities have done to each other.

Again, the problem isn’t simply that this is PC history, but that it’s bad history. Want some misdeeds? Examine the history of Japan in China. Or have a look at India and Pakistan and their treatment of their respective Muslim and Hindu minorities. Or explore the relationship between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. Or you can take a look at violence of Arab Muslims against blacks in East Africa, who have always been targets of exploitation by Arab slave traders.

The only way to make Euro-American males the only bad guys in town is simply by distorting the historical record. If students were allowed to study the whole of world and American history in context, they’d come away not just with a historically valid understanding of a multipolar world, but with the sure knowledge that evil isn’t the unique property of Western civilization.

I remember teaching classes on Hiroshima and seeing guilt of liberally trained white American students. When we put the event in context and read about the whole Pacific war and Japanese military aggression against any and all, there was certainly more understanding, but still guilt. To some, the A-bomb was yet another example of white racism.

In contrast, the students of Korean and Chinese descent saw Hiroshima in a full Asian context. They knew the history of the Pacific war, which started for their countries long before 1941. They knew a great deal about the nonwhite racism of the Japanese warrior class, which still occupied their countries in August of 1945. The students of Asian descent did not consider the use of the bomb an issue of bigotry, but the unavoidable result of the Japanese establishment’s willingness to fight to the last woman and child. (Indeed, no one in the Japanese military wanted to surrender even after Nagasaki.)

Unfortunately, many PC historians grew up or matured during the Vietnam era and tend to see everything through that prism. America is their Evil Empire. While many non- Western nations have done evil things, PC history ignores this. As Yale history professor Donald Kagan has said, “the admirable, even the uniquely good elements [of America] are taken for granted as if they were universally available, had always existed, and required no special effort to preserve. All shortcomings, however, are quickly noticed and harshly condemned. Our society is judged not against the experiences of human societies in other times and places, but against the kingdom of Heaven.”

Reclaiming History

There have been recent efforts to correct the errors of PC history, and not simply by celebrating our past. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has taken many steps to counter the decline of history teaching. In fall 2003, this included two key reports, Terrorists, Despots, and Democracy: What Our Children Need to Know and Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?

The Albert Shanker Institute, endowed by the centrist American Federation of Teachers (AFT), also issued a report last fall, Education for Democracy, urging, as a correction to PC history, “an education that tells our students the truth about the democratic struggle warts and all.” The report’s language is key; there’s no attempt here to deny that America has made mistakes. This is critical to note, as many PC historians insist that only those who are interested in white-washing America resist them (and so vulnerable academics are shamed by their drumbeat).

As the report’s author, historian Paul Gagnon, said, however, Americans need not distort the past. “Warts and all” means truth-telling not only about errors and mistakes—the domain of the PC historians—but also about successes and triumphs. “We want knowledgeable students who will end up committed to a system that acknowledges weaknesses and tries to fix them, while valuing democracy and wanting to extend it,” Gagnon declared. It is time, the report continued, for students to learn “our remarkable capacity for self- correction.” The goal should be “to rededicate ourselves to the historic, central mission of public education: to school American citizens in the history, principles, and practices of political democracy.”

As Sewall has demonstrated, we’ll need new textbooks to recover this kind of perspective. Furthermore, this will require history teachers and professors who are not just able but eager to speak out against the leftist distortions of their profession. Above all, we’ll need an Aristotelian balance—an intellectual athleticism, if you wish that enables us to tell the whole truth about America, “warts and all.”

The fact is, the world has voted with its feet. The United States has plenty of real internal problems. But we also have an abundance of heroes who, however flawed as individuals, have stood up for human dignity and equal rights. There was an ocean between us and monarchical Europe that allowed the frail flower of democracy to blossom here and haul Europe—and perhaps someday all of Asia and Africa—out of the pit of dictatorship. Eleven million immigrants passed through Ellis Island, and their children and grandchildren have enjoyed freedom from czars, kaisers, and other dictators. Certainly, this isn’t Eden, but one can only imagine what the history of the world in the 20th century would have looked like without the United States.


  • Tom O'Brien

    Tom O'Brien was a writer and editor at Heldref Publications in Washington, D.C. He passed away on February 28, 2007.

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