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History is written by hacks

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California legislated its history standards in 1995 under Gov. Pete Wilson. These standards have no been revised since 1998. (Richaed Vogel/2010 AP)

School resumed in San Francisco last week. Students, schools and teachers are evaluated on adherence to standards. Standards are how grandstanding reformers can declare that schools are failing and justify white flight from public education.

This week’s issue of The History Teacher ran a long article by Brad Fogo of Stanford University about the development of California history standards. Spoiler alert: California history standards were not written by history teachers or anyone working with children.

California legislated standards in 1995 under Governor Pete Wilson. A commission was created to craft the standards for assorted subjects between 1996 and 1998, including performance measures to evaluate said standards. The commission drafted standards subject by subject, turning to history last. At some point, the governor bored of the exercise and told the commission not to bother with performance standards. They need only concern themselves with what children ought to learn, not whether anyone could verify if they had learned it. By the end of 1998, the standards had been adopted and have been the basis, without revision, of California public school history instruction ever since.

To understand this process in context, remember the 1990s. Not the ’90s of Tupac and Jerry Maguire, but the ’90s of nationwide white panic about the demographic rising of people of color. There was the right-wing backlash to ban affirmative action and bilingual education, anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and racial profiling Proposition 21. And standards.

The political purpose of the standards offensive was to put a stop to the subversive allure of multiculturalism and ethnic studies. History standards in California were not for teaching the most current historical scholarship, but for asserting the primacy of Western Civilization with just scant enough acknowledgement of the rest of the world not to attract upset.

Gov. Wilson’s objective was achieved via the bureaucratic rot that dependably attends most commission proceedings. As with so many commissions, task forces and blue ribbon panels, commissioners are political appointees who may or may not be the most qualified on the topic at hand. They miss meetings often, eat free muffins, keep meetings they do attend brief and let staff do work commissioners take credit for.

The history subcommittee in 1997 made the courageous decision to avoid historical controversy. The one explosive debate the commission did wade into was on whether to use “ie” or “eg” in lists. “Eg” prevailed!

The staff, in turn, stayed out of trouble by agreeing with anyone who sent suggestions, regardless of whether it was supported by scholarship. Most revisions were based on commenters’ claims about “American values.”

For example, Diane Ravitch, who has since been born again as a left-wing education critic, sent in revisions to “acknowledge the important role of Ronald Reagan in hastening the collapse of the USSR, the end of the Cold War and the advance of freedom in the world.” Clearly, freedom did advance thanks to Reagan. Just ask Central America.

David Barton, the Texas Republican founder of WallBuilders who seeks to promote the US as a Christian nation, inserted “divinely-bestowed” next to “unalienable” rights in various standards.

A standard was drafted for seventh-graders that read, “Discuss the roots of the Scientific Revolution (e.g., Greek rationalism; Muslim science; Renaissance humanism; new knowledge from global exploration.” WallBuilders added Christian science with the Muslims, while the Jewish Community Relations Council added Jewish science too. Who were these medieval Jewish and Christian scientific innovators? No one knew! No matter, as long as Muslims didn’t hog the glory.

A draft standard on ancient Greece included Sappho of Lesbos among art and science luminaries, but she was swapped for Hypatia because LESBIANS.
Such standards are still in California textbooks and tests to this day.

Fortunately, this October, the State Department of Education will hold hearings to update the history framework. Maybe people responsible for actually implanting these standards can get their two cents in for once.

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