Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Florida decides to micromanage the history teachers

By Nancy Jane Moore

Florida has adopted a law that details how history should be taught in the public schools. The law provides, among other things:
American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.
As historian J.L. Bell notes in an excellent article on the new law published on George Mason University's History News Network:
This law is, of course, a construction of U.S. history. The words "shall be viewed" show that, even as lawmakers insist on one interpretation of American history, they acknowledge others.
Bell also points out that the Florida law, in explaining how to teach the Declaration of Independence, says teachers are to discuss the "inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property." The last time I read the Declaration of Independence, the words were "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I'm sure the founders considered property important, but it isn't in the Declaration. Apparently the Florida legislators don't think happiness is important -- or maybe they equate property with happiness.

A law like this one is more insidious than the ones that block the teaching of evolution or require that "creationism" be taught. The anti-evolution laws are at least obvious. With this law, you have to read the whole thing very carefully to understand that they're essentially requiring that history be taught as if there were no conflicts about how different parts of our history should be viewed. They've thrown in bits about African Americans, Hispanics, and women so that they sound politically correct. But they also want flag education. Pretty clearly they want to mandate the teaching of a certain view of history.

All this reminds me of the way history was taught in the Soviet Union -- or in virtually any dictatorship. History is not just a collection of absolute facts; interpretation of those facts matters and interpretations change as we learn more. And arguing about those interpretations refines our understanding.

Even without legislation, history has usually been taught in keeping with the local community's take on the country. When I was in high school, we were taught the Civil War as a conflict between "us" and "them." While I don't recall my teacher actually using the words "the War of Northern Aggression," the support of the Confederacy was abundantly clear. This was at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, more than a hundred years after the Civil War.

I assume that even in Alvin, Texas, they teach a more nuanced view of the Civil War these days. But this new Florida law scares me.

Patriotic movements have always focused on history class -- teachers who questioned too many cherished U.S. myths have been fired many times -- but passing laws that outline how to teach is another step closer to controlling people's opinions.

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