What can we Americans do to keep ourselves from declining as a great power?" a questioner asked the best-selling British historian Paul Johnson recently.
"You have to believe in yourself," replied Johnson, author most recently of A History of the American People. "To do this, you must teach your children about your history. Instill in them what's in the Constitution. They should know large parts of the Declaration of Independence by heart. This will lead to a belief in America itself." Having lived through his own country's loss of confidence and precipitous decline, the 69-year-old Johnson knew whereof he spoke.
Though Americans notoriously haven't been taking this advice for several decades—schools have taught little of our national history, and taught it execrably—hopeful signs are on the horizon. A new series of unabashedly patriotic American history textbooks has sold over one million copies. A few states, particularly Virginia, have instituted rigorous standards of what public school pupils must study in required history courses. And in New York City, an innovative public high school that focuses on American history is inducting classes filled with immigrants into that unique tradition of freedom and inclusiveness that is the indispensable glue holding together the nation's common civic culture. It is giving these newcomers the means, as George Washington put it, to become "assimilated to our customs, measures and laws; in a word soon become one people."
But before looking at these hopeful signs of renewal, consider for a moment the dark background of historical ignorance that makes these signs look so especially bright by contrast. Many of the nation's middle schools and high schools no longer offer American history, and New York State's high schools require only a single, two-semester course in post-Civil War U.S. history. The majority of American students leave high school historically illiterate. According to the 1994 nationwide tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 57 percent of high school seniors scored below the minimally passing grade. Only one in four could tell in which century Lincoln was president, and only one in five knew anything about Reconstruction. "In most countries the study of history is inseparable from the spirit of the country," the historian John Patrick Diggins has written. "The United States is the exception."
The little that high school students do learn about our past is largely a swamp of error and special-pleading. Government standards of what kids should know are part of the problem. In a fit of political naiveté, the Bush administration's chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lynne Cheney, hired the National Center for History in the Schools to develop the first-ever set of national history standards. This outfit's head, UCLA's Gary Nash, exemplifies the triumphant march of 1960s New Left graduate students through university history departments. His scholarly writing stresses the importance of social movements of the "oppressed" over "white-oriented hero-worshiping" history. His book, Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America, purports to show that the American polity sprang not so much from the Eighteenth-century European enlightenment as from a great "convergence" of European, American Indian, and African influences, in equal parts.
The first version of the National History Standards in 1991 set off one of the fiercer battles of the culture wars. Indian lore dominates the early parts of the text; George Washington merits two mentions; Western civilization drops a few more notches in importance. But working-class and feminist pro-test, as John Patrick Diggins observed, "parades itself through the text until it seems as though the only meaning of history lies in the shouts coming from the streets. In the NHS, 1968 lives!"
After much public sniping—99 senators expressed dismay, as did mainstream historians, such as Diane Ravitch and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who cling to that battered old revolutionary ideal of E pluribus unum—Nash's group issued a revised set of standards, which eliminated some of the more egregious examples of anti-Western, anti-white-male bias. While the earlier draft, for example, depicted the cold war as a kind of "swordplay" between two equally blameworthy superpowers, the revised draft conceded that there really was such a thing as Soviet totalitarianism and that Stalinist repression in Eastern Europe provoked an appropriate response from the West. These changes mollified some. But the revised standards remain heavily multicultural.
Nevertheless, instead of history, whether multicultural or not, what most schoolchildren get is an unwholesome brew called social studies, concocted by the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS), which represents the teachers of such stuff. From its start in the 1920s, the NCSS has believed that academic history—which some of its leaders have disparaged as "pastology"—is elitist and irrelevant. The organization has successfully lobbied state education departments to require little or no history. Instead, it has filled the schools with a hodgepodge of "global studies," "cultural studies," even "peace studies"—which present all cultures and civilizations as equal in value. A dash of therapeutic programs, from self-esteem to conflict resolution to AIDS awareness, completes the social studies mix.
These topics make at least a smattering of history inescapable, but most high school social studies teachers are ill-equipped to teach even that fragment. According to Diane Ravitch, only 18 percent of them have completed a college major or minor in history; most of the rest are education-school grads. In New York you can teach high school social studies (and even 11th-grade American history) without having taken a single college-level history course.
If the NCSS had its way, America would reconstruct its entire educational system to reflect a race- and gender-centered philosophy of pedagogy and child development. The organization's official policy paper, "Curriculum Guidelines for Multicultural Education," is one of the scariest documents in American education today, going far beyond the demand that social studies curriculums vent the grievances of a rainbow coalition of ethnic and racial groups. In the tone of a commissar's lecture at a political reeducation camp, the NCSS exhorts teachers, administrators, and other school employees to think and act multiculturally during every moment of the school day, lest they become accomplices of American culture's lurking racism. School personnel should scrutinize every aspect of the school environment—from classroom teaching styles and the pictures on the walls to the foods served in the lunchroom and the songs sung in the school assemblies—to be sure they reflect "multicultural literacy."
At the heart of the NCSS guidelines lies a fundamentally racist assumption. "[T]he instructional strategies and learning styles most often favored in the nation's schools," the guidelines declare, "are inconsistent with the cognitive styles, cultural orientations, and cultural characteristics of some groups of students of color." These students flourish under "cooperative teaching techniques" rather than the "competitive learning activities" that work for white kids. This assertion sounds dangerously close to City College professor Leonard Jeffries's vaporings about black "sun children" and white "ice children." Certainly, for the NCSS, the ideal of a race-neutral classroom is a mirage. Teachers who strive toward a single standard of excellence, who presume to treat all students equally, are doing something harmful, not admirable. We are left, finally, with this Orwellian conclusion: "Schools should recognize that they cannot treat all students alike or they run the risk of denying equal educational opportunity to all persons."
Those students who do study history usually study it out of textbooks that are, in about equal measure, mendacious and dull. Gilbert Sewall, a former Newsweek education writer who, as director of the American Textbook Council, has studied the textbook industry for years, notes that since the 1970s publishers have come under intense pressure from various left-wing advocacy groups (some with federal government financing) to create a politically correct, multiculturalist version of American history under the guise of eliminating "racist or sexist" material from the books. One such organization, financed by liberal Protestant churches, published a 1988 volume called Thinking and Rethinking U.S. History, which was brutally frank about its intentions. "We explicitly believe that all textbooks and all literature are on the side either of progress, of the status quo, or of regression," it opined. Here is the view of America's founding that the group wants children to derive from social studies textbooks: "We see the Revolution of 1776 as—among other things—a step in achieving greater social justice for one group of people—white males."
Today's history (and social studies) textbooks are unreadably dull because, in addition to multiculturalism in content, they also reflect an affirmative-action approach to authorship. The authors are not individuals but committees, backed up by consultants and teacher-reviewers, all chosen according to the textbook industry's diversity requirements—so many blacks, so many Hispanics, so many women.
In a recent speech, Sandra Feldman, the new president of the American Federation of Teachers, warned that without strong public schools, America will have a situation "where our rich diversity becomes a source of balkanization and division, because common public schooling will no longer be the way into the American mainstream and will no longer hold our society together." Feldman may not have noticed, but it is organizations of public school educators like the NCSS that are trashing the very idea of an "American mainstream," producing the "balkanization and division" she rightly fears. Only by returning to the study of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, all part of the "spirit of the country," can we recapture a common civic culture for our children.
That resurgence isn't coming from organizations like Feldman's union or the NCSS but from grassroots movements of dissident parents, teachers, and concerned citizens. It is a movement for change from the bottom up, as Gary Nash would put it. Private citizens are beginning to fight back, as in California, where parents, including a large percentage of Hispanics, will almost certainly pass the June referendum that would sharply curtail bilingual programs in the state's schools, in an effort to get immigrant children immersed in the common civic culture as quickly as possible.
One of the brightest examples of the resurgence is the spectacular success of a fed-up parent who protested by becoming a historian herself. Joy Hakim, a reporter in Virginia Beach, became outraged with the way her children were being taught American history and resolved to do something about it. Disgusted with the children's stupefyingly boring textbooks, she concluded that she could do a better job herself. She wanted to tell a positive story about America in a coherent narrative style. It took her five years to complete A History of US, a ten-volume series aimed at children from the fifth to the eighth grade. It then took as long to find a publisher: after all, she came from outside the education industry.
At last, Oxford University Press decided to take the risk. But because Oxford doesn't "produce" books for the school market, it placed Hakim's books in regular trade-book stores—5,000 copies of each of the first five volumes. The results were astonishing. Based almost entirely on word of mouth by parents and teachers who found the volumes while browsing in the likes of Barnes & Noble, Hakim's books took off. The History of US has now sold over one million copies. It has also penetrated the regular textbook market and is being adopted by hundreds of school districts around the country. "The lesson is," Hakim says, "that we shouldn't have any books in school that are not good enough to be in a bookstore."
The popularity of A History of US is even more encouraging when you consider its tone of optimism, its old-fashioned credo that America really is a new nation much greater than the sum of its multicultural parts. Listen to the triumphant message Hakim offers her young readers in the opening pages: "Learning about our country's history will make you understand what it means to be an American. And being an American is a privilege. People all over the world wish that they, too, could be American. Why? Because we are a nation that is trying to be fair to all our citizens. . . .
"We believe the United States of America is the most remarkable nation that has ever existed. No other nation, in the history of the world, has ever provided so much freedom, so much justice, and so much opportunity to so many people."
Hakim's history doesn't scant the shameful episodes in our country's past. At the start she tells her readers: "Some people will tell you of evil forces in the United States. They will tell you of past horrors like slavery and war. They will tell you of poverty and injustice today. They will be telling the truth.
"We didn't say the United States is perfect. Far from it. Being fair to everyone isn't as easy as you may think. (Do you treat everyone you know equally? How about people you don't like?) The United States government has made some terrible mistakes. It is still making mistakes. But usually this nation can, and does, correct its mistakes."
And then, horror of horrors, Hakim commits what any self-respecting multiculturalist would de-nounce as the cardinal sin of being "judgmental." She informs the children: "The more you study history, the more you will realize that all nations are not the same. Some are better than others. Does that seem like an unfair thing to say? Maybe, but we believe it."
Getting kids to learn "what it means to be an American," to come to the proud realization of their country's excellence, is a mission that has attracted two other private citizens from outside the orbit of professional education, businessmen and philanthropists Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman. They are tireless crusaders for the study of American history. Lehrman has taught history at Yale; Gilder (a member of City Journal's publication committee) majored in history in college and is a generous funder of Civil War battlefield preservation. They hold the country's largest private collection of American historical documents, on loan to the Pierpont Morgan Library. Four years ago they established the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to reinforce the beleaguered troops battling for the preservation of American history in the schools.
Though the institute runs a full program of lectures, exhibits, and summer seminars for high school history teachers, its most dramatic and potentially most influential activity is its work in New York City's public schools. In 1995, it began special, extra-credit Saturday courses in American history for middle-school students in District 26 in Queens. Hundreds of students showed up, and the courses' unexpected popularity encouraged the institute to sponsor a special-theme high school in American history. In September 1996, the Academy of American Studies opened its doors, on the fourth floor of the rundown, 100-year-old former Long Island City High School. The entering freshman class, 125 strong, came from all over Queens.
In one sense, the Academy of American Studies is just another star in a constellation of more than 100 experimental "new vision" public schools, created as smaller, somewhat more autonomous alternatives to the city's big, bureaucratically run, geographically zoned high schools. But the Academy of American Studies is unique in the extraordinary amount of extra academic work its focus on American history actually requires. In addition to the regular state-mandated three years of social studies, the Academy requires students to take four years of very rigorous American history courses. Every student thus carries six academic classes each semester, more coursework than most students take at the elite Stuyvesant and Bronx Science High Schools. In addition, with funds the Gilder Lehrman Institute contributes, all the students take trips throughout the year to historic sites such as Valley Forge and Gettysburg.
What makes the Academy even more noteworthy is that it doesn't draw its students from the academically gifted. Under Board of Education rules, it must select its students (half of them by lottery) from across the spectrum of achievement as measured by standardized tests. The typical Academy student scores in the 60th percentile in standardized tests, often speaks a foreign language at home, and comes from a working-class background. In this school, the academic study of history is hardly an elite enterprise.
"Why should it be?" asks Richard Gilder. "These immigrant kids come here not knowing much of our story. But the study of American history makes them understand that this nation is based on great ideas, and that thousands of people were willing to die for those ideas. I want those kids to become proud of our national heritage, to understand that they have the same right to this history of ours as anyone who has been here for 15 generations."
To enter the battered old building housing the Academy is to come face-to-face with the dilemmas springing from a national policy of unfettered immigration combined with a school culture of de-Americanization. On the first three floors of the building is a special high school for new immigrants, called the Newcomers Academy. Some 1,000 students with limited English skills are trying to get up to speed in the English language while they begin taking some regular academic subjects, an admirable goal. But the posters I saw hanging on the walls raised perplexing questions. Under the big heading "Multicultural," one of them showed examples of the students' essays, all of them on their former countries. Another poster, a collection of pictures of students, bore the title "Diversity." It was as if those in charge of the school were announcing their ambivalence about their students' assimilation into American culture.
Three flights upstairs, at the Academy of Amer-ican Studies, the visitor sees no such ambivalence. Every one of the school announcements, the lists of honor-roll members, and examples of student work are mounted on poster boards with an American flag in the background. Clearly, the purpose in this school is not to look backward to where the children came from but forward to their new country. Like Hakim's books, the school unashamedly trumpets America's ideals and achievements.
The Academy's principal, Michael Serber, 58, walked me through the corridors during a class break and stopped to ask over a dozen students where they or their parents came from. In just a few minutes I had met children from China, Colombia, Croatia, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, and Yugoslavia. Serber, a former social studies chairman at a large Queens high school, jumped at the chance of directing the Academy, not only to have his own school but to help plan a real history curriculum. "What's called for in the state curriculum, one year of American History that only covers the period after the Civil War, is really insufficient to give young people any real insight into the events and individuals that made the country what it is," he told me. "That's particularly true out here in Queens for all these immigrant kids. I really believe that the bond that can hold people from different countries and cultures together is a shared understanding of America's past."
I sat in on a ninth-grade American history class taught by 31-year-old Mark Solkoff, one of Serber's two history teachers. The day's lesson: the development of religious freedom in colonial America. The students had read sections on the Pilgrims and Roger Williams from an excellent, traditional, three-decade-old textbook that would now be considered hopelessly politically incorrect. They also read some original documents, including the Remonstrance of the Inhabitants of the Town of Flushing to Governor Peter Stuyvesant, asking for the extension of tolerance to non-Christians wishing to settle in New Amsterdam. Solkoff was making a personal connection for these immigrant children, getting them to see that 300 years ago, in their very own borough, other newcomers to these shores were laying the groundwork for the nation's principles of inclusiveness and religious tolerance. He posed a question to the class: "Why was the idea of separating religion from the state so important to the new settlers?" A student from Pakistan responded: "Because they escaped from countries where the king tried to force them to go to a church they didn't believe in."
I visited the tenth-grade history class, covering the Civil War period. The students had been broken up into groups, each with a Civil War battlefield map and other readings, and each assigned to report on one of the major battles of the war—Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Richmond. One student from each group stood up and delivered a short talk on how the battle his group was researching had developed, who won, how many casualties resulted, and what the battle's importance was to the course of the war. Each student seemed totally engrossed in playing armchair general.
Academy students don't gloss over the problematic aspects of American history. The tenth-graders were completely familiar with the Amistad episode long before the movie came out. Posted on the walls were mock abolitionist newspapers the students created for one of their assignments. They included reports on one of Frederick Douglass's most bitter speeches on the evils of slavery. The ninth-graders were reading John Chester Miller's Wolf by the Ear, a critical biography of Jefferson that discusses the moral issues regarding Jefferson's holding of slaves and the more controversial aspects of his private life. Loredana Purneval, a 15-year-old sophomore born in Romania and one of the Academy's academic stars, remembers that last year her ninth-grade class's unit on Jefferson ended with the students engaging in a debate: "Was Thomas Jefferson a hypocrite or a product of his times?" Says Purneval: "It was the most interesting thing we did. Here was a great leader who said, `All men are created equal,' yet he owned slaves. Jefferson once swore on `the altar of God, eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the minds of men,' yet he was in favor of forcing the Indians to give up their way of life. But we didn't just listen to the teacher telling us what was right. We had to do a lot of reading and then come to a conclusion by ourselves."
One of the other books the ninth-graders read is Richard Brookhiser's 1997 biography of George Washington, Founding Father. Last winter, when the Academy invited Brookhiser to speak to the students, he didn't know what to expect. After all, with his book's heavy emphasis on Washington's heroic leadership as key to the success of the American Revolution, it is a defiant example of history written "from the top down"—an approach most public school social studies teachers dislike. So Brookhiser was more than pleased to discover that not only was his book an assigned text at this school full of immigrant children but also that the students could thrill to his tales of Washington's military and political exploits.
"Those kids really paid close attention," Brookhiser recalls. "What really excited them was the military aspect of Washington's career. They clearly responded to that. Their questions about the various battles were intelligent." Brookhiser found it an uplifting experience. "The last time I can recall Washington being associated with a school was when his name was taken off a school in New Orleans, because he was a slaveholder. But this was an important man, a great man, who had an enormous influence on the way this country was created. And these students were interested in getting a look at everything he did."
Over 800 students from all over Queens applied this year for the 125 openings the Academy has for incoming freshmen next fall. Michael Serber doesn't fool himself into thinking they all want to come for the American history component; parents also like the school's small size and safe, nurturing environment. Yet the first two years of the school's operation have demonstrated that ordinary New York City high school students from a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds are willing to work extra hours to achieve some mastery of this country's complex history—the "pastology" that the social studies profession so disdains.
Next fall, another American history high school will open in Brooklyn, modeled on the Academy of American Studies. The Gilder Lehrman Institute is working on having one in each borough soon. In that, there is a great measure of hope. The success of the Academy and the popularity of Joy Hakim's books exemplify the grass-roots efforts needed to extricate the public schools from the wasteland professional educators created when they expelled American history. The multiculturalism that replaced it now seems to have no other purpose but to demoralize our children about the country they live in, while keeping them ignorant about the glorious past that gives them so promising a future.