73.3 - ERIC ZENCEY Transcending the P E R S P E C T I V E S...

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42 L IBERAL E DUCATION S PRING 2008 R EMEMBER THE CULTURE WARS ? The term has lost currency but the thing it labeled, a deep division in the American polity, is definitely still with us. And the phenomenon is now global: world economic integration has brought increased contact and conflict between na- tional and supranational cultures. Fundamental conflicts over values and vision—culture wars—are very much with us today. One of the first salvos in our domestic cul- ture war was fired by Lynne Cheney, the for- mer head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In a 1994 op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The End of History,” Cheney launched a preemptive attack on a set of as-yet-unpublished advisory standards for the teaching of American history in our schools. That the battle was joined over the teaching of history is no accident: the story of who we have been is necessarily the story of who we are and what we value. Turks and Armenians, Kurds and Iraqis, Palestinians and Israelis all see the common events of their histories through dramatically different lenses, and such disparate visions make compromise and accom- modation more difficult. A common ground on which cultural conflict over history could be re- solved thus promises to be a useful thing. Under the advisory standards that Cheney criticized, students were to be challenged with historical questions (“Was the atomic bomb used to shorten the war? Or was it done for political reasons?”) and given arguments and primary documents from both sides, thus encouraging them to make up their own minds. Such an approach nurtures critical thinking, evaluation of sources, tentative conclusions, and a host of other worthy educational goals, while requiring students to become producers, rather than passive consumers, of their histor- ical understanding. But for Cheney and neoconservative com- mentators like Rush Limbaugh, this approach promised a dangerous, nation-threatening loss. As they saw it, history is the nursemaid to citi- zenship. If American citizens were not to be taught a particular and laudatory metanarrative about their history—the story of American ex- ceptionalism with its heroic sweep of ambition, statesmanship, and accomplishment—much mischief would ensue. For conservatives, the traditional narrative is a necessary foundation of American political life. But had the standards writers ignored the contributions of ethnic, minority, and revi- sionist historians, they would have been guilty of professional malfeasance. And their peda- gogic goal was worthy: they wanted students to understand that history is a lively conversa- tion, one to which the present always brings its own concerns, obsessions, assumptions, and values. History is not simply “what hap- pens” (as Limbaugh insisted); it is what histo- rians do. There are standards of excellence that can be learned, and the national stan- dards sought to codify them.
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This note was uploaded on 09/08/2010 for the course ENGL 1B at San Jose State University .

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73.3 - ERIC ZENCEY Transcending the P E R S P E C T I V E S...

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