Lynne Cheney: Loves History (But also Loves the No Child Left Behind Act, which Ignores History)

Roundup: Talking About History

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, in Education Week (June 16, 2004):

... While [Lynne V.] Cheney’s professional record has covered a broad range of social and cultural issues, it is her work in the area of history education that has earned her a reputation for speaking her mind. That work has won her some measure of admiration, even among those who do not subscribe to her views. But it has also drawn the most criticism.

"Her emphasis on history/social studies education has clearly left its mark," said Jesus Garcia, the president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies, an organization that has clashed with Mrs. Cheney over the group’s advocacy of an integrated, thematic approach to teaching the subject."Unfortunately, she has a more conservative agenda … that doesn’t allow other perspectives. She’s been extremely divisive."

She began to make that mark with a monograph in 1987, written while she was at the helm of the NEH, that pointed to a lack of historical knowledge among the nation’s high school students, which she blamed on schools and teachers.

A few years later, Mrs. Cheney, who has a doctorate in 19th-century British literature, announced plans to develop voluntary national history standards.

A month before the standards were to be unveiled in late 1994, Mrs. Cheney, who had left her NEH post with the change to a Democratic administration the year before, wrote a scathing critique of the document on The Wall Street Journal’s opinion page under the headline"The End of History."

The piece led to independent reviews of the document. Supporters of the standards effort, however, charged that Mrs. Cheney’s appraisal was misleading, and that critical content she had accused the writers of ignoring, such as references to George Washington and the U.S. Constitution, were indeed featured throughout the three volumes.

The standards committee made some minor revisions before releasing the document nationally, although none of Mrs. Cheney’s complaints had significant influence on the final product, according to Gary B. Nash, who headed the standards effort with his colleague at the National Center for History in the Schools, Charlotte Crabtree. Mr. Nash said the charges in Mrs. Cheney’s opinion piece came as a surprise, given her involvement in various stages of the standards-writing process.

"Lynne Cheney and I never disagreed on the importance of history," Mr. Nash said."But she certainly touched off a firestorm about the standards. … Now, 10 years later, I can say that the standards accomplished the goal" of providing a sound framework for history education nationwide.

The overall standards effort is ultimately credited with having a broad influence on history and social studies education. It has served as a model for many state standards documents.

Nearly a decade later, Mrs. Cheney is still embroiled in the history debate. She and other scholars have called for an end to the social studies movement, which they argue undermines the teaching of history.

President Bush’s"We the People" initiative to strengthen history education has helped further that effort, Mrs. Cheney said in a response by e-mail to questions from Education Week. She declined to be interviewed in person.

But some critics ask how Mrs. Cheney can tout so enthusiastically the No Child Left Behind law when her passion, history, is being pushed aside in the curriculum, they say. As schools focus more on math and reading, the subjects that the law requires students to be tested in, many teachers are finding less time for other subjects. ("Troubled High School Narrows Courses," this issue.)

"The stress on reading and math is at the expense of teaching children their country’s heritage," said Mr. Garcia, a social studies education professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas."Today, as opposed to 10 years ago, we don’t have more history in the curriculum because overall it’s being squeezed out."

Mrs. Cheney has not answered those concerns directly. But in an e-mailed response to a question on that point, she wrote:"I think we often overlook the fact that reading is a skill that can be practiced and perfected on all kinds of content.

"There are," she continued,"terrific books about history being written for even the littlest kids and that time students spend with them can benefit both reading skills and historical knowledge."

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Michael Glen Wade - 6/18/2004

Both Ms. Manzo and Mrs. Cheney are right. Cheney is correct in her earlier defenses of history, which included a desperately needed end to the social studies approach. Its original raison d'etre notwithstanding, social studies as a "field" has no unity, no intellectual power. It is a refuge for education majors (usually among the weakest students on any college campus, their inflated GPAs to the contrary) and a vehicle for those (ironically, like Ms. Cheney) who see history and/or social studies as a vehicle for promoting an uncritical view of history so as to produce an inchoate, complacent citizenry who will happily ingest Rev. Falwell and Fox, that "fair and balanced" subsidiary of the Cartoon Network. Given her assault on the Nash curriculum, one suspects that Mrs. Cheney's objection to social studies is grounded in the fear that sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and other left-leaners might get their hooks into the kiddies.
Be that as it may, where is Mrs. Cheney now that the Bush No Child Left Behind Act has effectively consigned History to the dustbin of academics in public schools? There is little question that this is so--- public school teachers know it, the kids know it, coaches suspect it, and even professional educationists know that if it is not subject to the same testing as other subjects, it must surely lose ground in its battle to retain its already uncertain place in the curriculum. So, is Mrs. Cheney a stand-up person who will stick to her advocacy of History's centrality in American education, or is this the issue that will reveal her to be just another right-wing shill for the most-intellectually challenged presidency since that of Warren Harding?