Education Department to Design New Guidelines for Teaching American History

November 8, 2019 Updated: November 8, 2019

After 25 years of bitter dispute over a million-dollar project to create a national standard for teaching U.S. history, two federal education agencies unveiled their latest effort to design a guideline on what history and civic content should be taught in all American schools, and the best way to teach it.

In the beginning of November, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the U.S. Department of Education announced that they had awarded $650,000 to iCivics, a civic education provider that would work with prominent university partners to issue a “roadmap” to guide teachers, schools, districts, and states on the best strategies and practices when they design their history and civic programs for K-12 students.

“Educating for American Democracy is an effort to provide guidance for integrating history and civics so that today’s learners form a strong connection to our constitutional democracy—and take ownership of it,” said Louise Dubé, Executive Director of iCivics. “We are very thankful that this cooperative agreement with NEH/ED will give our team of experts, academics, and practitioners the opportunity to design a trans-partisan roadmap for excellence in history and civics education.”

The Roadmap, officially titled “Educating for American Democracy: A Roadmap for Excellence in History and Civics Education for All Learners,” is expected to be released in September 2020, more than a quarter-century after its precursor triggered a nation-wide debate.

In 1994, the University of California Los Angeles’ National Center for History in the Schools published a set of standards that recommended what American schoolchildren should learn about the history of their country. Some 200 historians and educators across the country were funded $1.3 million and given 32 months to complete the National History Standards (NHS), at the request of Lynne Cheney, the then-chairwoman of NEH. Yet the former chairwoman found the project she helped fund deeply problematic and fiercely charged that NHS was a “politically correct” document with extravagant multiculturalism and anti-West bias.

In her Wall Street Journal op-ed under the title “The End of History,” the conservative author blamed the curriculum for omitting American heroes, downplaying America’s European roots, and over-emphasizing the role of minorities. To demonstrate the standards’ bias, Cheney counted how many times different subjects are mentioned in the NHS. “One of the most often mentioned subjects, with 19 references, is McCarthy and McCarthyism,” she wrote. “The Ku Klux Klan gets its fair share, too, with 17. As for individuals, Harriet Tubman,…is mentioned six times. Two white males who were contemporaries of Tubman, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, get one and zero mentions, respectively. Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, and the Wright brothers make no appearance at all.”

The heated debate following Cheney’s op-ed eventually saw a climax when the issue was pushed to the floor of the U.S. Senate the following year. Senator Slade Gorton of Washington State called the NHS as an “ideologically driven anti-West monument to politically correct caricature” designed “to destroy our Nation’s mystic chords of memory.” By a vote of 99 to 1, the Senate condemned and rejected the standards.

Although hailed as a trans-partisan effort, it may still be challenging for the new Roadmap to not re-ignite the old controversy, especially as what many call a “cultural war” ensues and inevitably takes place in American History classrooms.