In 1986 Ronald Reagan appointed Cheney to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities, a chair she sat in until George H.W. Bush left office in January 1993. Way back then, a lot of folks worried about the state of K-12 education in the nation’s schools, and history education in particular. In an effort to improve the situation, the National Council on History Standards was created in 1992. The group was
We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or email@example.com
In 1986 Ronald Reagan appointed Cheney to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities, a chair she sat in until George H.W. Bush left office in January 1993. Way back then, a lot of folks worried about the state of K-12 education in the nation’s schools, and history education in particular. In an effort to improve the situation, the National Council for History Standards was created in 1992. The group was charged with creating a set of voluntary guidelines to make the teaching of history more uniform across the country and to improve the quality of what kids learned.
Truth isn’t simply the first victim of any culture war; it’s the primary target.
The council brought together a wide group of educators from across the spectrum, and they worked for the better part of two years to develop a consensus about what frameworks should shape the standards. They planned to release the standards late in 1994. Oh, and the whole project was funded by Lynne Cheney’s NEH.
Cheney beat the group to the punch. In October 1994, by then ex-chair Cheney published an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal denouncing the standards, which had not yet been released. Had she read them? Probably not, but she had inside information from unnamed informants about the contents. “Imagine an outline for the teaching of American history in which George Washington makes only a fleeting appearance,” she fulminated, “Or in which the foundings of the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women are considered noteworthy events, but the first gathering of the U.S. Congress is not.” Her piece ignited a national outcry of Limbaughian proportions.
Was this all true? Well ... the standards did incorporate several decades of academic research into the history of working people, women, Black and Native Americans, immigrants, and others who had been left out of the old-fashioned narratives of presidents and generals. That research, in turn, had helped foster a broader recognition that the United States is a multicultural experiment and always has been. The history standards broadened and deepened what ought to be taught. George Washington wasn’t out in the new standards, but the Parson Weems version of him was.
But truth isn’t simply the first victim of any culture war; it’s the primary target. I’m not sure even Cheney believed what she wrote in 1994; that was hardly the point. The point was that Bill Clinton had beaten George H.W. Bush in 1992, to the fury of conservatives, putting an end to their dreams of a thousand-year Reaganite reich. The History Standards were labeled as subversive anti-American leftist indoctrination.
If the standards reflected the work of scholars in the early 1990s, then the outrage they generated also reflected a national identity crisis at that time. For conservatives this was, after all, America’s “We’re No. 1!” moment — the Cold War “won,” America triumphant and unfettered. The idea that America’s past might be more complicated than that facile triumphalist narrative, that Thomas Jefferson could be both the author of the Declaration and an unrepentant slave owner, was simply more than conservatives could manage.
“Revisionism” is often the charge conservatives level at new historical ideas, but in fact all history is revisionist history, and it always has been. History changes all the time — because we find new sources, ask new questions, and rethink the perspectives of historians from earlier generations. Needless to say, the baying mob that mobilized against the History Standards did not understand that. “History is real simple,” Rush Limbaugh sputtered to his radio audience. “It’s what happened.”
Revanchists get angry when they learn that the good ol’ days ain’t what they used to be. Never mind that they never were.
What was “politically correct” back in the 1990s is “woke” today. If Limbaugh weren’t dead, I would swear he was using Manny Diaz Jr., Florida’s education commissioner, as a ventriloquist’s dummy. Back then Limbaugh summarized the standards as “a bunch of PC crap.” Last month Diaz mimicked: “We do not accept woke indoctrination masquerading as education.” An inadvertently funny choice of words since Florida’s so-called Anti-WOKE law is a dog’s dinner of far-right ideology masquerading as educational legislation.
Nearly 30 years later, DeSantis stood before the cameras doing his best Lynne Cheney impersonation. He declared that the new AP African American studies curriculum “lacks educational value,” though it is not clear that he (or anyone else in Florida) has actually read it. He went on to say that the course “is contrary to Florida law” though no Florida official has specified what law the course breaks and how. I will give this to DeSantis: His attack on African American history is more openly and honestly racist than Cheney’s charge against the History Standards was back in the day.
DeSantis’s reboot of the Lynne Cheney Show forces a revision of the famous Marxist adage: The attack on history was a farce the first time, and the second time has become even more farcical. In the end, Lynne Cheney didn’t kill the History Standards. They were adopted by hundreds of districts across the country and did the good work they were intended to do. The College Board may — or may not — have caved to Florida’s Know-Nothings with their recently announced “revisions” in the course, but I suspect folks there are smiling all the same. Thanks to Ron DeSantis, more people are now rallying to the new AP African American studies course than the College Board could ever have hoped for.