Gary B. Nash, a leading UCLA scholar revered for his role in shaping the K-12 American history curriculum and admired for standing firm – even in a public entanglement with the wife of a former US vice president – died.
Nash died of colon cancer on July 29 at the age of 88, his family announced. Although he retired from UCLA in 1994, he has authored over 30 history books and textbooks focusing on US history, race and class and has continued to publish articles, essays and editorials long after.
In an interview with The Economist on the recent political outrage over race teachings in K-12 classrooms, Nash weighed in on the issue, saying attempts to ban “uncomfortable” conversations will lead to discussions. less useful and productive.
“We want the division of opinions so that young people grow up learning to express themselves, to discuss it, to think about it seriously,” Nash said. âPatriotism is not just saluting the flag. It means becoming responsible citizens who will take an active part in what is happening around them.
Nash had his own contact with Conservative efforts to censor school curricula. As the founding director of the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA, where he worked for 20 years, he led efforts to diversify American history classes and championed the histories of non-white groups that were often excluded from history textbooks.
While at UCLA, he co-led the National History Standards Project, which included four years of contributing teachers, historians, parents and educators to deliver a national history program for students. from all over the country.
Nash and his colleagues were trapped in a political storm after the standards were published. Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, has led a crusade alongside conservative critics, calling it a “politicized history.”
Cheney complained that the standards, which were meant to help school officials recalibrate history lessons, were not positive enough about the country’s achievements. She also claimed that she did not pay enough attention to American figures, including Confederate leader Robert E. Lee and inventor Thomas Edison.
Nash became the face of the project, recalls Ross Dunn, a longtime friend and colleague. âHe was just stubbornly determined to stand up for what we had done. “
Carla Pestana, chair of UCLA’s history department who was then a graduate student under Nash, recalled how controversy took hold on the morning news shows. Nash would appear on TV Pacific Coast Time as if he had just gotten out of bed to the pristine Cheney.
Still, Dunn said he sold more than 70,000 copies of the standards, which were used by public school leaders in curriculum design. Subsequently, Nash, Dunn and their colleague Charlotte Crabtee co-wrote a book about the episode, titled “History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past”. An LA Times reviewer called the book “deeply informed, balanced and compelling.”
Nash wrote 33 books during his career, and he wrote over 100 plays for dozens of publications. He had three other writing projects he was working on, writing and writing until his last days.
âHe had this boundless energy,â Pestana said, and he offered advice to young academics who were looking for him – which often was. He was so generous, Pestana said, that every time she balances the demands, she remembers, âGary would do that. Gary did it for me, and now I have to pass it on.
He was also an optimist who believed that the United States, with all its faults and successes, could move forward towards a better society. His third book, “Red, White and Black: The Peoples of Early North America,” re-conceptualized how Native Americans, African Americans, and colonizing settlers shaped the country’s beginnings.
âHe was really part of that shift from turning things around to reflect on the various groups in society and the contributions of people other than the richest and most politically powerful,â Pestana said.
Nash was born on July 27, 1933 in a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia. Her neighborhood was white and conservative, her daughter, Brooke Nash, said. He attended Princeton University on a scholarship, and then served three years in the US Navy. He returned to Princeton for his doctorate in history and in 1966 he accepted a position at UCLA and moved his family west.
The move awakened his social activism, his family said. His wife of 40 years, Cynthia J. Shelton, said he has helped integrate businesses, including banks and markets. She suspects that her passion came from her years of studying history.
When UCLA attempted to fire Angela Davis for being a member of the Community Party, it headed Angela Davis’ Advocacy Committee, her daughter, Brooke, recalls. His efforts prompted the FBI to visit his home in the Pacific Palisades, she said. He has also helped black families facing discrimination buy housing by posing as a buyer, she said.
âHe was kind of a radical,â Brooke said. âHe wasn’t afraid to act. He has acted on his beliefs all his life.
When he retired from the National Center for History in Schools, his colleagues and alumni filled a book of memories and gratitude. Among the tributes was a 2002 letter from Karl Holzheimer, a college professor in Bellevue, Washington. In the June 17 letter, Holzheimer explained that he used video supplements from a textbook that introduced Nash and that captivated his students.
“In the first few weeks after starting school, one of my 8th grade honorary classes became – there is no other word – fascinated by your appearance on the videos of American Nation, âHolzheimer wrote to Nash. âWhen they entered my classroom, they started asking me if there was ‘Nash’ today. They gave you the nickname “The Nashinator”, a kind of superhero in history. “
They even found a photo of Nash on the UCLA website, printed copies for the class, and kept it in their notebooks, alongside their favorite pop stars, Holzheimer wrote.
âI can’t begin to explain this fascination,â he said. âI believe their admiration for you is sincere. When I suggested we sign a thank you card for you, they were very excited.
Nash is survived by his wife, four children, nine grandchildren, a sister and a brother.