Moving Beyond Name Games

The Conservative Attack on the U.S. History Standards

By Robert Cohen

A poster from the suffragist movement — one of many events in U.S. history that cannot be reduced to mere names.

Conservatives reacted with fury to the publication of the National Standards for United States History in the fall of 1994. Led by former National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Lynne V. Cheney, these critics accused the National Center for History in the Schools, which compiled the standards in conjunction with large groups of historians and social studies teachers, of “pursuing the revisionist agenda” and promoting a left-wing, politically correct version of the American past. To prove the standards’ leftist slant, Cheney (soon followed by Charles Krauthammer and others on the right) counted the names it mentioned.1 She found that women and minorities were getting too much attention at the expense of great white men: Harriet Tubman was mentioned six times, while U.S. Grant was named only once and Robert E. Lee not at all. Cheney was also upset by the standards’ jabs at conservative heroes. She worried that students might come away from the standards thinking that John D. Rockefeller was no angel, and pondering Tip O’Neill’s characterization of Ronald Reagan as “a cheerleader for selfishness” (Cheney 1994).

Sharing Ms. Cheney’s self-professed concern about fair and balanced history, I decided to adopt her methodology, but to apply it to a part of the American experience with which she seems unfamiliar: the history of the American left. If the standards were as Left oriented as she thought, they were sure to give big play to the great men and women of the American Left.

Using Cheney’s name-counting approach, I opened the standards chapter on the 1960s and searched for New Left leaders. But they were not there. No Mario Savio. No Tom Hayden. No Bernardine Dohrn. No Mark Rudd. No Bob Moses. Students for a Democratic Society was not mentioned. Nor was its Port Huron Statement. No Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. The Free Speech Movement, the campus teach-ins against the Vietnam War, the Columbia student strike were not mentioned. When I turned to the section on the 1930s, I found the standards as skimpy with the major figures of the Old Left as they had been with the New Left. Communist Party (CP) leader Earl Browder and Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas never appear in the 1930s section. Harry Bridges was not mentioned here. Nor was Paul Robeson. Angelo Herndon was the only Communist whose name appeared in the 1930s section, but the standards never even revealed that he was a Communist (National Center for History in the Schools 1994, 187-98, 212-33).

Now, were I to follow Cheney’s example, I’d take these data gathered on the basis of her sampling technique (name-counting) and play politics with it. But instead of going to the Wall Street Journal, Crossfire, and Good Morning America, as Cheney did, with complaints about the standards’ radicalism, I would have to turn her argument on its head by dubbing the standards antiradical, and accuse their authors of being so conservative that they left the Left out of their guide for teaching American history. It is, of course, absurd to argue that the standards are both radical, as Cheney’s head count suggested, and anti-radical, as my count implied. Obviously, the problem here is with the crude methodology we both used to analyze the standards.

By being fixated on names and their frequency of citation, Cheney and I treated the book of U.S. History Standards as if it were a long list of hall of famers or a massive history text. But in fact, this much maligned book was meant to be neither such a list nor a comprehensive text. In the book’s opening pages, the authors suggest that their history standards are intended to break with the hall of fame approach to history instruction, which puts students to sleep in classrooms dominated by the “passive absorption of facts, names, and dates.” The goal was not regurgitation of lists of great men (of the left, right, or center), but rather effective history teaching and learning. The authors believed that if the standards were to move history teachers toward that goal, they “should be intellectually demanding, reflect the best historical scholarship, and promote active questioning … learning … [and] historical thinking skills that enable students to evaluate evidence, develop comparative and causal analyses, interpret the historical record, and construct sound historical arguments and perspectives on which informed decisions on contemporary life can be based.” (National Center for History in the Schools 1994, 2-3.)


This approach is obviously richer intellectually than a book of historical lists would be. Working teachers do not need such lists; they already have them in the form of fat and dull U.S. history textbooks that their school systems usually require them to use. Indeed, part of the problem with the name-counting critique that Cheney and I used is that it is more appropriate for the average U.S. history textbook of 500 pages or more (which can make a greater claim to comprehensiveness with respect to names and dates) than it is to this 245-page teaching guide (whose relative brevity admittedly makes it vulnerable to nit-picking name counters, but also more usable by working teachers in our social studies classes).2

The problem, however, is not just with name counting, but the mode of name counting that Cheney and I used. If we wanted to be fair to the authors of the standards, we should not have simply counted the names that appeared on each page. This book, after all, consists largely of historical questions, activities, and content goals. If we want to do an accurate and meaningful name count, then we obviously need to take into account the names of the historical figures students will have to learn in order to respond to the specific questions, activities, and learning goals that appear in the book. Once you use this more honest and accurate mode of standards’ name counting, you immediately see that Cheney and I distorted the standards’ book and understated its historical coverage in our cruder use of name counting. For example, by Cheney’s count, Robert E. Lee got “zero mentions” in the standards (Cheney 1994). But when you read its Civil War section, you find the standards telling teachers that “students should be able to… demonstrate understanding of how the resources of the Union and the Confederacy affected the course of the war by: … Evaluating how political, military, and diplomatic leadership affected the outcome of the war (Assess the importance of the individual in history).”

The first example of student achievement that follows this learning goal has students “explain how the military leaders and resources of the Union and the Confederacy affected the course and outcome of the Civil War. Compare the population, armies, and leaders of the Confederacy with those of the Union …” (National Center for History in the Schools 1994, 124). No matter how bad your math, when you count the number of times students will have to learn about Robert E. Lee, based on these standards, queries concerning Confederate military leadership, it does not add up to zero. By my count, when the material just cited and all of the other questions and activities in its Civil War section are reviewed, there are at least a dozen occasions where General Lee’s name would almost certainly have to appear in the resulting class discussions or assignments (National Center for History in the Schools 1994, 124-27).

Cheney’s critique, however, does not rest entirely on its flawed numerical attack. In her Wall Street Journal article, she expressed concern with qualitative as well as quantitative failings of the standards’ book, and suggested that these, too, were political in nature. She detected a radical political bias in the standards’ use of the Tip O’Neill quote characterizing former President Reagan as a “cheerleader for selfishness,” and also suggested that the standards, in their neglect of the virtues of American statesmen, all but ignore “their spellbinding oratory” (Cheney 1994). Cheney fails to mention that O’Neill’s negative quote about Reagan is followed by questions about whether the Speaker gave a “fair characterization” of Reagan. “Why or Why not?” (National Center for History in the Schools 1994, 233). This section also includes a set of neutral goals and respectful questions about the Reagan Revolution and its impact, and covers the type of “spellbinding oratory” Cheney claims is missing: assigning students to analyze a Reagan inaugural address (National Center for History in the Schools 1994, 231-33).

Cheney’s problem is that her motivation is political, but she wants to make it seem as if she is offering a fair-minded critique and calling for a balanced approach to the American past (Gamarekian 1991, C13, C18). Cheney’s evidence cannot sustain her charge that the standards slight American political leadership or slander American capitalism. Those are phony arguments. The real problem Cheney has with the history teaching standards is that they are not sufficiently elitist and Eurocentric for her tastes, so that they foster a critical and multicultural approach to history that seems incompatible with conservative Republicanism. This is what makes the standards so alien and distasteful to Cheney and many of her fellow conservatives.

Although I do not share Cheney’s misgivings about the standards’ book, I think her response is quite understandable. Great changes have been made in the historical profession’s understanding of the American past over the last generation, due largely to the new social history and the wealth of innovative work in women’s history, labor history, diplomatic history, American studies and cultural history, and African-American and Native-American history (Foner 1990, VII-290). It seems both logical and predictable that the political implications of a large part of this historiographical revolution are offensive to conservatives (no matter how old or young) because its studies have often brought out the neglected underside of the American past.3 When you study slavery, discrimination against women, the crushing of strikes, the Vietnam War and the American empire, and the displacement of Native Americans, as many of these new histories have, you are left with a more complex and critical rendering of the past — and one that is not conducive to the flag-waving nationalism so beloved by conservatives. This is what Cheney was referring to when she complained in her Wall Street Journal piece, “We are a better people than the National Standards indicate, and our children deserve to know it” (Cheney 1994).


Implicit in this complaint by Cheney is an assumption about the purpose of historical teaching. For Cheney, classroom history is less about the pursuit of truth than about inculcation of patriotism. She wants what she calls “a tone of affirmation” in such history (Cheney 1994). Flaws in our past can be part of the covered content, but only so long as this does not interfere with the primary task of history class, which is to reproduce in our children our pious assumptions about the basic goodness of our democratic republic. The problem with this is that honest and detailed study of such topics as the extermination of Native Americans cannot affirm Cheney’s patriotic assumptions. Such chapters suggest that in the past Americans were at times a lesser people than Cheney would like us to remember–and that only by doing violence to American history will our children learn in class that Americans “are a better people than the National Standards indicate.”4

Regarding the usefulness of the standards themselves, the national debate orchestrated by Cheney has generated more heat than light, which is to be expected because it is driven by ideologues who seem out of touch with classroom realities. One wonders if the American Enterprise Institute talking heads, who have been so quick to denounce the history standards, ever see the inside of a public school classroom or talk with social studies teachers. I teach those teachers. Over the past year, I have had two groups of secondary and middle school social studies teachers (in my graduate course “Teaching U.S. History”) read both the standards book and the articles by its detractors and supporters. Even conservatives among them have been impressed with the standards. It is one of the few graduate school volumes that the teachers do not sell back to the bookstore at the end of the quarter. They keep the standards book because they know they can put it to use in the classes they teach. Indeed, on numerous occasions, teachers told me that almost immediately after reading the standards they used it as they formulated lesson plans.

Most of the teachers in my classes have been impressed by the searching historical questions, innovative class activities, and meaningful learning goals that are at the heart of the standards’ book. The very thing that Cheney wants — comprehensive naming — is what they most want to get away from, because it is what makes so many of the texts they have to work with read like telephone books. The most common praise I hear from my students is that the standards book gets away from the dull memorization that they were burdened with in the history texts and classes of their youth.

This is not to say, however, that the social studies teachers I work with are uncritical of the standards. They do have criticisms, but these tend to be practical and pedagogical rather than ideological. Their biggest concern with the standards has to do with their scope and ambitiousness. Although they all agreed with the need for lively historical readings — particularly novels, diaries, oral histories, and a variety of other primary sources — some felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of such readings asked about in the student achievement sections of the chapters. There were a variety of titles that many had never heard of, and concerns about the logistical problems involved in trying to assign them. Given the time constraints they were under as teachers, how could they sift through such a professorial-level reading list — particularly without an annotated bibliography? And how did the authors of the standards think that teachers working in communities and schools with small libraries and tight budgets were going to get access to the huge number of books alluded to in the standards or to obtain funds to photocopy excerpts from them for their students?

There were also concerns about whether time constraints in the academic year prevented the type of in-depth content coverage outlined in the standards. It was almost as if the questions in the book were too deep and demanding. One teacher told me that if he addressed half of the questions in the 19th century sections, it might take him until June to get up to the 20th century.

In a less overheated political climate, it would be such criticisms and questions that would be at center stage rather than the corrosive, politically motivated attacks that have gotten so much play in the media and on Capitol Hill.5 If the voices of our teachers were heeded, we would work on fine tuning the standards and move expeditiously toward their implementation in the interests of enlivening the teaching of American history in our schools. But the overwhelming Senate vote against the standards, the Clinton Administration’s refusal to embrace them, and the ongoing campaign of powerful conservatives to kill the standards suggest that bad politics will prevail over good pedagogy. In my own state, leading social studies administrators have been frightened away from the standards, due to the political furor orchestrated by the right. As is true with so many of our Washington-based cultural wars, this one is having a chilling effect on educational experimentation and progressive change. The shame of it is that innovative educators and classroom veterans who know what makes for good history teaching are losing out to ideologues and name counters, and so are our kids.


  1. Cheney was the most prominent conservative critic of the standards. But her tone was restrained compared to the rightwing talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who portrayed the standards as the outcome of a leftist plot and urged that they be “flushed down the toilet” (Wiener, 1995, 9-10).
  2. The 245 pages of standards are followed by a resource guide and an appendix listing contributors to the volume (National Center for History in the Schools 1994, 247-71).
  3. Anyone confused about why conservatives raised on the history texts of the 1950’s would be upset by the more critical historical approaches incorporated into the standards has only to read Frances Fitzgerald’s description of those texts and their super patriotic messages.)
  4. Fitzgerald, in her classic study of U.S. history textbooks, aptly notes the way that the Native American view of the past can undermine the conservatives’ cherished belief in American progress and virtue: “If the texts were really to consider American history from the perspective of the American Indians, they would have to conclude that the continent had passed through almost 500 years of unmitigated disaster, beginning with the epidemics spread by the Europeans and continuing through on most fronts today” (Fitzgerald 1979, 103).
  5. On Jan. 18, 1995, the Senate, by an astounding 99-1 margin, adopted a sense of the Senate resolution urging that the History Standards not be certified by the federal government, and that federal funds only be allocated for standards that stress the U.S. contribution “to the increase of freedom and prosperity throughout the world” (Wallace 1995, 27).


Cheney, L.V. “The End of History.” Wall Street Journal (Oct. 20, 1994): A22.

Fitzgerald, F. America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century. New York: Random House, 1979.

Foner, E., ed. The New American History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Gamarekian, B. “Grants Rejected; Scholars Grumble.” New York Times (April 10, 1991): C13, C18.

Krauthammer, C. “History Hijacked.” Washington Post(Nov. 4, 1994): A25.

National Center for History in the Schools, National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience, Grades 5-12 Los Angeles: UCLA, 1994.

Wallace, M. “The Battle of the Enola Gay.” Radical Historians Newsletter, no. 72 (May 1995): 1-32.

Wiener, J. “History Lesson.” The New Republic 172, no. 4 (Jan. 2, 1995): 9-11.

Robert Cohen is an Associate Professor of Social Science Education and an Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Georgia, Athens.

This article is condensed from a longer essay that originally appeared in the January 1996 issue of Social Education, © National Council for the Social Studies.

Reprinted by permission.