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What’s Wrong With History Standards?

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The latest fight on the nation’s bloody educational battlefield is over the newly released national standards for teaching history to America’s schoolchildren. The standards were drawn up by the federally funded National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles. They are part of Goals 2000, the program passed by Congress to create a common curriculum for the entire country.

Everything about the history standards has been predictable. The 271-page document calls for emphasis on sometimes obscure events involving women and African Americans but leaves out Paul Revere, Robert E. Lee, Wilbur and Orville Wright, and Thomas Edison. Understanding the changing gender roles seems more important to the authors of the standards than the historical struggle against political tyranny, culminating in the American Revolution, or the struggle of man’s intellect against nature.

The standards for world-history are similar. The cultures of Asia, Africa, and Mexico get more attention than the achievements of the Europe and the United States.

Just as predictable is the outcry by conservatives, who have condemned the standards as embodying “political correctness.” Typical is Lynne V. Cheney, a leading neoconservative intellectual who was director of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Bush. The irony of Ms. Cheney’s reaction is that she is partly responsible for the standards. It was her National Endowment for the Humanities, along with the Department of Education, that made the $1.75 million grant to the National Center for History in the Schools in 1992. Another critic, Diane Ravitch, was a high-profile advocate of national history standards when she worked for Bush as an assistant secretary of education.

The conservative critics are not to be faulted for their belief that the standards will give students a distorted picture of history. That is largely true. Where the conservatives go wrong is in believing that the federal government should set standards at all. Unfortunately, the latest battle has not dissuaded them. Calling the standards a travesty, Ms. Cheney said, “I think they’re not only likely to bring an end to the standards movement, but will cause a final erosion in people’s faith in public education.” If we could only be so lucky. The proper response to the history standards is not to demand an alternative list for the government to impose. We must instead reject the imposition of uniformity in principle.

It is curious that the same people who generally laud the virtues of free competition abhor competition in educational standards. Government standard-setting in education suffers the same defects as government standard-setting for anything else. We should expect government-run education to be no better than government-produced automobiles.

To trust government to set educational standards is to imply that government officials know all there is to know about what constitutes a good education. Stated that way, the arrogance is clear. In fact, no group of bureaucrats knows enough. The world is open-ended. We don’t know the extent of our ignorance. Thus, we must be open to what economist Israel Kirzner calls “utter surprise.” To discover what we don’t know, we need an incentive process that encourages such discovery. Luckily, we have it: the market. In the market, profit-seeking entrepreneurs search for gaps in our knowledge that, when filled, lead to improved consumer satisfaction. No wonder the competitive market process created the highest standard of living the world has ever known.

Unfortunately, that process has not been permitted to operate in education. Government school authorities do not operate under the same incentives as entrepreneurs. They get their revenues coercively through taxation. They get their students through compulsory attendance laws. They don’t have to earn profit, and they can’t go out of business. Thus, they are not driven to innovate the way that entrepreneurs are. No wonder the schools stagnate and what passes for innovation is mere faddism.

Apologists for the public schools say that we need a national curriculum so that children grow up with a common heritage that produces social harmony. That’s what the founders of public schooling promised nearly 150 years ago. Who would say there is more social harmony now than there was then?

Thanks to successful private schools and homeschooling, we know a great deal about how to help children learn. But the world is open-ended; we can’t know today what we might discover tomorrow. We literally don’t know what we’re missing by having education under the monopolistic control of government. Our children are too important to leave their education to bureaucrats. Enough of their standards. Enough of their goals. It’s time we’ve learned that the collapse of socialism has implications for education in the United States.

It’s time to separate school and state.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.