History for Everyone and No One

Five years ago, the California Board of Education adopted guidelines for a new history curriculum that would "accurately portray the cultural and racial diversity of our society." Several book companies proposed texts to meet that requirement, and last year, Houghton Mifflin won approval for its series for grades one through eight.

The title of the fifth-grade text tells the whole story. It is a line from a poem by the black writer, Langston Hughes: America Will Be. It is hard to imagine any other country publishing a history book that puts the nation in the future tense. Most nations want their children to look back on their people's history with pride. This book seems to suggest that the real, multicultural America is yet to come.

Of course, as the texts go to great pains to explain, America was always multicultural. A typical section is entitled, "A Nation of Many Peoples," and this does not mean Englishmen, Swedes, and Germans. One gets the impression that Europeans were a furtive side-show in a vast history that began with Indians and ends with Chinese, blacks, Hispanics, West Indians, and Native Americans.

Among the "moments in time" that the books illustrate with full-page portraits of people typical of a period, is a lasso-whirling, bronco-busting, Mexican lady-cowboy, or vaquera. Such an apparition would probably have astonished the longhorns as much as this "moment in time" astonished anyone over the age of twenty. In the 50 pages that one text devotes to the horrors of Negro slavery, there is a full-page portrait, not of a working slave but of an escaping slave.

This was not enough for the racial activists, for what they want is their own, exclusionist history. Houghton Mifflin officials, who expected praise and gratitude for their painstakingly "inclusive" history, were astonished by the accusations hurled at them. They did not realize that, for the most part, it is only whites who want a multiperspective history.

The overall director of the series, Professor Gary Nash, is a well-known leftist and a leading proponent of multiculturalism. He, too, was shocked by critics who called him a racist and a white supremacist. "If I'm the bad guy," he wanted to know, "who are your allies?"

Several majority-black school districts rejected the texts outright. In San Francisco, where 82 percent of the public school children are non-white, the school board reluctantly accepted the books, but added a supplemental reading list with titles like Black Heroes of the Wild West, Chinese Americans, Past and Present, and Gays in America. (Homosexuals were angry that these grade school texts said nothing about their contributions to America.)

The battle over text books was especially bruising in California because, by 1995, a majority of its public school students will be non-white. Nevertheless, the white decline is rapidly moving East. The struggle for America's past is only warming up.

Some battles have already been lost. A 1983 study by Nathan Glazer and Reed Ueda of six leading history texts found that blacks and Hispanics got at least four times as much coverage as European immigrant groups, and even trivial non-white successes were paraded as brilliant achievements.

The multiculturalists have already come a long way. More American 17-year-olds can now tell you who Harriet Tubman was than know who Winston Churchill or Joseph Stalin were. They are more likely to know about her than to know that Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation or that George Washington commanded the American revolutionary army.


From The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1992 (Vol. 12, No. 2), page 164.