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Greg Gaut: When history is held hostage to tests

March 17, 2004

If the proposed K-12 social studies standards are approved in their present form, someday soon a bright high school senior will face an exam question about the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. The student will consider her dilemma, and then write something like this:

"I know that the current Republican administration which controls how history is taught in Minnesota requires me to answer that the United States won the European war when it stormed ashore at Normandy in June 1944, fought the Battle of the Bulge, and then pushed on to liberate Paris and Germany. This is my official answer, and whoever is grading this need not read further. I add, purely for my own sake, the following.

"Although the D-Day campaign was an important part of the allied victory, the real turning point of the war came earlier. In January 1943, Field Marshal Paulus surrendered more than 100,000 German troops to the Red Army at Stalingrad. Six months later, the Soviet Union finalized its rout of the Nazi army with its victory at Kursk, the biggest battle of the war. Although U.S. armed forces fought courageously, the Nazis sustained about 80 percent of their total casualties fighting the Soviet Union. Honoring the important contribution of American forces to the victory does not require the creation of a self-centered myth that ignores the decisive contribution of another country."

The student will write this answer because the revised standards of what students in grades 9-12 should know present a myopic view in which the United States must appear as the hero of every tale. The standards are divided into U.S. and world history standards, but remarkably, only the U.S. standards mention what happened in World War II. The benchmark states that students should "identify and understand the major battles in the European and Pacific theaters, including the Battles of Britain and Midway and the Normandy invasion." The examples given for this benchmark are the "Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Paris and Germany, Okinawa and the Philippines." As a benchmark for understanding just the U.S. involvement in the war, this might suffice. The problem is that the world history standards make no mention of how the war was fought (hence no Stalingrad or Kursk), or even who fought. As a result the standards are completely silent about the Soviet role in World War II, including that the Soviet Union was a member of the "Grand Alliance" against Germany with the U.S. and Britain. This omission is breathtaking, given that more than 8 million Soviet soldiers and 17 million civilians died in the war.

This same pattern can be seen with respect to the momentous events involving the Soviet Union later in the 20th century. If asked to explain the demise of the Soviet Union, our bright high school student will have to write an essay like this:

"I know the 'correct' answer is that the Soviet Union came to an end solely as a result of U.S. policies, and especially those of Ronald Reagan. But for my own peace of mind I would add that U.S. policies were not the only or even the most important factor. Beginning in the Khrushchev era, a reform movement began to grow within the Communist Party. Mikhail Gorbachev, a product of that tendency, finally came to power in 1985. By then the Soviet Union was stagnating economically, but it was militarily strong and politically stable, and could have muddled along for decades. Gorbachev, however, hoped to democratize and revitalize Soviet communism. His programs of perestroika and glasnost had the unintended consequences of weakening the party, which was the glue that held the country together. As a result, the Soviet Union broke into its 15 constituent republics. Many factors were involved, but surely Gorbachev must be at the center of any explanation of the collapse of communism. I can't wait to finish high school so that I can learn real history and not one-sided explanations of complicated processes."

This answer would be required because the world history standards omit any mention of the end of the Soviet Union. You won't find Gorbachev there. As far as those standards are concerned, the Soviet Union might still exist. However, the issue is covered in the U.S. standards. There you find a benchmark that requires students to "know and describe the political and economic policies that contributed to the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War from the Truman Doctrine to the administration of Ronald Reagan." In effect, the remarkable story of the end of the Soviet Union is reduced to a kind of footnote in U.S. history.

As a college history teacher, I sympathize with those who want students to arrive in college classes with a deeper knowledge of U.S. and world history. However, there are better ways to accomplish this than forcing students to memorize and parrot a narrowly nationalistic worldview. For example, we can better prepare high school social studies teachers by requiring that they take a wider selection of history courses as part of their teacher training than is commonly the case today. We can also strengthen programs like History Day, which provides incentives for schools, teachers and students to make historical study a priority. All the standards do is create a barrier to learning. Teachers will be forced to teach, and students will be forced to learn, against or around their curriculum instead of through it.

Greg Gaut teaches European and Russian history at St. Mary's University of Minnesota in Winona.