To some, Christopher Columbus is a brave explorer. Others see him as a genocidal butcher. Thomas Jefferson is viewed by many as a great civil libertarian who helped guide the nation through its formative years. But others call him a hypocritical, racist slaveholder with questionable morals.
These are only two members of an American pantheon of white “great men” who have come under attack in recent years after their views and actions have been held up to contemporary standards in what is commonly referred to as the political correctness debate. Increasing sensitivity to the roles of racial minorities and women in history has led to a reexamination of historical reputations that seemed untouchable a generation ago.
One result of this examination has been the advocacy of national history teaching standards, first sponsored in 1991 by Congress and the Bush administration. The first set of suggested standards included 2,500 possible history lesson plans created by a team of academics headed by University of California — Los Angeles faculty members. The standards and lesson were released in late 1994.
Designed to bring school history curricula up-to-date with contemporary research, the standards have lead to controversy among educators and politicians who disagree with the sometimes less-than-flattering portrayals of the historical figures they examine.
University history professor David Good said the standards were devised to incorporate the great volume of nonpolitical historical research that has taken place over the past 30 years.
“I would say, certainly social history first off, and then more recently cultural history,” Good said. “These have been big fields within history, so this work needs to be included.”
The standards immediately drew fire from conservatives nationwide who said they were too critical in their portrayal of American and Western accomplishments. Coincidentally, the standards were released just as Republicans gained control of Congress.
“(With) the shift toward a more right political agenda — a very verbal right — I think it’s probably a function of their challenge to what had been kind of becoming part of more mainstream history, this more multicultural approach to historical research,” Good said.
Critics of the standards also decried what they saw as the scapegoating of white males, citing for example a disproportionate emphasis on the role of blacks in the Civil War, while making no mention of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.
But proponents of the standards said the omissions were being blown out of proportion. For example, they said, Grant and Lee would undoubtedly be discussed when teachers asked students to evaluate the political, military and diplomatic leadership exhibited during the war.
But while the new standards have garnered the praise of many prominent history professors, they fail to satisfy everyone. Albert Shanker, president of the American Teachers Federation, said in a Richmond Times Dispatch article that “No other nation in the world teaches a national history that leaves its children feeling negative about their own country.”
Lynne Cheney, Bush’s National Endowment for the Humanities administrator, said in the Wall Street Journal that the revisions still hold an obvious bias. “If it happened in the non-West, it is good. If it happened in the West, it is not an achievement.”
The debate over the revisions has even spilled over into the presidential campaign. Surprisingly, both candidates agree on this issue, as both President Clinton and Bob Dole denounced the standards earlier this year for their bias against traditional historical figures.
Current University controversy over the presence of a portrait of Margaret Sanger in Wilson Library is another example of the political correctness debate applied to historical figures, with conservative activist Tom Gromacki attacking an early 20th-century feminist for her racist views and work on eugenics.
Gromacki said Sanger, an early advocate of birth control and founder of Planned Parenthood, should be less immune to attacks based on current-day standards than Jefferson or George Washington — both of whom owned slaves — because she is less well-known.
Because slavery, cultural conflict and conquest have been routine throughout the world for centuries, it is possible to criticize historical figures when they are held up to current moral standards, said Regent’s Professor of History Paul Murphy.
Doing so is “a dishonest use of history,” Murphy said.
Good said no historical figures should be spared the scrutiny of historians even if it leads to new interpretations of long-held views.
“The issue, of course, is how it should be incorporated, and to what extent. But certainly time marches on,” Good said.