Lynne Cheney today published on the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal an article titled “The End of History, Part II.” The person, the publication, and the title are as fraught with significance as the substance. Lynne Cheney, who served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1993, is a leader in the decades-old battle to restore high standards to American education. We at the National Association of Scholars have admired her courage and valued her leadership.
Of the many battles she engaged, none outranked her decision in October 1994 to oppose the National Standards for United States History. She began that fight by publishing on the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal an article titled, “The End of History.”
One might think history could only end once, so that “Part II” in the new op-ed is slyly mischievous. Here’s why Cheney has come back to a culture war that many assumed was over and done.
The original “End of History” was prompted by Cheney’s unhappy discovery that a project she had begun as head of the NEH with the hope of improving history instruction in the nation’s schools had resulted instead in a new curriculum that gave pride of place to politically correct interpretations of the nation’s past. A “revisionist agenda”—one that embodied disdain for much of America’s past—had been set forth in the new standards.
Cheney’s opposition proved pivotal in rallying popular and political opposition to these standards. They were ultimately voted down in the U.S. Senate 99-1.
The scholars who created and backed the 1994 standards, however, never gave up. They did, however, learn from their defeat. Mainly what they learned was to avoid expressing their agenda as clearly as they had in the National Standards. The next step was the slow process of transforming the College Board’s Advanced Placement in United States History (APUSH) standards into a vehicle for the same outlook on the nation’s past. I say the same outlook, but in fact the new APUSH standards are even more disdainful of the core of American history than the 1994 version.
The National Association of Scholars was the first national body to draw attention to this travesty. Last July we published “The New AP History: A Preliminary Report.” It set in motion analyses and examinations by many other scholars, some of them on the NAS website—KC Johnson, Joseph Kett, Jonathan Bean, Robert Paquette, John Chalberg, and Kevin Brady—and many elsewhere. Ron Radosh contributed one of the most important early assessments. But no one was more effective in digging into the origins and aims of the new APUSH than Stanley Kurtz, whose numerous postings on National Review Online began to paint a picture of a process than had run off the rails. Kurtz’s February op-ed in The Washington Post, “Let’s Embrace Competition in Advanced-Placement Testing,” may have been a turning point. At the very least it caught Lynne Cheney’s attention.
And that is a big thing. Those of us who have been concerned about what APUSH would do—directly and indirectly—to the teaching of American history have been watching and waiting to see whether Cheney would join us. For many months she kept her counsel.
But it was worth the wait. Cheney’s “The End of History, Part II” is terrific and it may well do what the retronymed “Part I” did—rally a broader movement of sensible people to take a careful look at a curricular novelty that threatens to undermine good instruction in American history.
The title in 1994 played off the title of Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 post-Cold War bestseller, The End of History and the Last Man. In Part II, history has come to a different end. It is hard to resist—and I won’t—quoting Karl Marx’s chestnut from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
The disdain for America in the new APUSH does indeed seem so extreme that it is close to farcical. It is a great relief to have someone of Lynne Cheney’s judgment and skill join us in the effort to restore the teaching of American history to a more sober path.
Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain