Since history serves as a vehicle for forging national identity, its content is frequently the subject of debates. Some politicians, special interest groups, educators, and parents maintain that students should be taught a certain core curriculum in order to develop a personal sense of patriotism and pride in their nation’s accomplishments. Others, however, declare that history should attempt to adhere to certain objective methodological guidelines, and it should not ignore a country’s past sins and transgressions.
This conflict has aroused nationalist passions and has generated a fiery discussion over the role of history in education in the United States. In 1995, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum organized an exhibit featuring the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. Instead of portraying the mission of one of the bombers used, the Enola Gay, in a celebratory victorious fashion, the museum planned to exhibit photographs of the victims and to mention the devastation inflicted upon the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. American veteran organizations cried foul and lobbied Congress to prevent what they perceived to be an unjustifiable moral condemnation of U.S. military strategy. As a result, the Smithsonian revamped its presentation.
A similar controversy surfaced in 1994 following the publication of the proposed National Standards for United States History for Grades 5-12. Concerned that students were leaving secondary education with an inadequate understanding of history, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education funded this project—along with similar projects in other subjects—and hired historians to devise national guidelines for local school districts. The resulting report angered many. Some maintained that the standards were too critical of American institutions and overly sympathetic to other cultures and non- Western exploits. Why, they argued, should American students be required to learn more about the Gupta empire in India than the U.S. Constitution? After repeated attacks, the Senate passed a resolution censuring the standards and declared that the standards would neither be certified nor implemented. Perhaps wishing to avoid future controversy, the Senate also ruled that such projects would no longer be funded by the federal government. Thus, in effect, the senate decreased its power to censor the teaching of history in American classrooms.