EXCERPT: Remembering America

9780803254336-JacketBlue.inddAn excerpt from Remembering America: How We Have Told Our Past (November 2015) by Lawrence R. Samuel.

 

5 WE THE PEOPLES

1990—1999

 

Historical memory is the key to self-identity, to seeing one’s place in
the stream of time, and one’s connectedness with all humankind.
National History Standards, 1994

 

In the fall of 1994, a new set of guidelines for teaching American history was published and released to the public before being put into practice. The guidelines, called the National History Standards (NHS), were a response to students’ dismal test scores in American history, a situation anyone following trends in education was disturbed and embarrassed by. Much controversy surrounded the issuing of the 271-page document spearheaded by the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA), most of it centered around what was believed to be the authors’ overt attempt to “multiculturalize” American history. Although critics had no shortage of complaints about the content of the NHS, one term in particular raised serious alarm. “Big business, heavy industry, and mechanized farming transformed the American peoples” in the late nineteenth century, part of one of the standards read, the plural use of the last word not going at all unnoticed. The term “the American peoples” appeared a number of times in the document, in fact, something considered quite troublesome among those subscribing to a more traditional reading of American history. The term had also shown up in other proposed curricula in recent years.1

 

For historians or laypeople taking it for granted that Americans were a “people,” the news that we were a “peoples” was nothing less than shocking. The Declaration of Independence referred to us as “one people,” after all, and the Constitution’s very first words were, “We the People of the United States.” When and how did we become a “peoples”? critics asked, not happy to see the nation broken up into parts. The shift from being a nation of individuals to an amalgamation of different subcultures based on ethnicity and race was for conservatives truly revolutionary, and not in a positive sense. Even worse, according to this new history, the American “peoples” were in a constant state of conflict, each group competing with others as it negotiated for greater power. In emphasizing the pluribus over the unum in the country’s unofficial motto, these academics were treading dangerous waters, traditionalists argued, and the United States was well on the way to becoming a significantly less united society. “The multiculturalist agenda is shattering the American identity,” John Fonte, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, declared in National Review in 1996, genuinely worried that the core of the nation would not hold together under a banner of “We the Peoples.”

 

Although it was certainly disquieting to those thinking we were on the verge of breaking up into a million little pieces, the upheaval in American history in the mid-1990s was three decades in the making. As in the 1980s, domestic politics were at work, although those of the 1990s were much different from the Ronald Reagan administration’s almost Messianic faith in American exceptionalism. The “multiculturalist agenda” that had been working its way into the field since the mid-1960s was reaching a kind of critical mass, as younger professional historians steered the narrative of American history in a new direction. In retrospect this was hardly a radical development; since the beginning of the twentieth century each generation of American historians had in some way reinvented the field based on the way it viewed the world and the nation’s role in it. Never before had there been the kind of “culture wars” that were now in play in the 1990s, however, and it had only been during some major calamity—for example, a war or the Great Depression—that there had been a general sense that our national identity could be in great peril. Fittingly, perhaps, the last decade of the twentieth century proved to be the climax of the troubles that had defined American history for many years, with no clear resolution as we crossed over into the twenty-first.

 

NOTES
1. John Fonte, “We the Peoples,” National Review, March 25, 1996, 47.
2. Fonte, “We the Peoples,” 47.