Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Florida Censors Teaching of History

Florida, leader it is in the field of intelligent concepts, has decided that American History is to be taught the way fundamentalist churches teach the Bible: as is, no ifs ands or buts. Entirely factual, no interpretation. Don’t try to tell us that Oceola was murdered: he was killed; attempts to reclaim runaway slaves were not the reason Florida was invaded: it was Indian depredations on white settlers. Capitalism is wonderful.

If I knew any students in Florida schools, and I was rich, I’d send each one of them a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and a copy of James Loewen’s Lies My Teachers Told Me. Censorship is ugly and sick and needs to be combatted.

Florida's Fear of History: New Law Undermines Critical Thinking
by Robert Jensen

Published on Monday, July 17, 2006 by CommonDreams.org


One way to measure the fears of people in power is by
the intensity of their quest for certainty and control
over knowledge.

By that standard, the members of the Florida
Legislature marked themselves as the folks most
terrified of history in the United States when last
month they took bold action to become the first state
to outlaw historical interpretation in public schools.
In other words, Florida has officially replaced the
study of history with the imposition of dogma and
effectively outlawed critical thinking.

Although U.S. students are typically taught a sanitized
version of history in which the inherent superiority
and benevolence of the United States is rarely
challenged, the social and political changes unleashed
in the 1960s have opened up some space for a more
honest accounting of our past. But even these few small
steps taken by some teachers toward collective critical
self-reflection are too much for many Americans to

So, as part of an education bill signed into law by
Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida has declared that "American
history shall be viewed as factual, not as
constructed." That factual history, the law states,
shall be viewed as "knowable, teachable, and testable."

Florida’s lawmakers are not only prescribing a specific
view of US history that must be taught (my favorite
among the specific commands in the law is the one about
instructing students on "the nature and importance of
free enterprise to the United States economy"), but are
trying to legislate out of existence any ideas to the
contrary. They are not just saying that their history
is the best history, but that it is beyond
interpretation. In fact, the law attempts to suppress
discussion of the very idea that history is

The fundamental fallacy of the law is in the underlying
assumption that "factual" and "constructed" are
mutually exclusive in the study of history. There
certainly are many facts about history that are widely,
and sometimes even unanimously, agreed upon. But how we
arrange those facts into a narrative to describe and
explain history is clearly a construction, an
interpretation. That’s the task of historians -- to
assess factual assertions about the past, weave them
together in a coherent narrative, and construct an
explanation of how and why things happened.

For example, it’s a fact that Europeans began coming in
significant numbers to North America in the 17th
century. Were they peaceful settlers or aggressive
invaders? That’s interpretation, a construction of the
facts into a narrative with an argument for one
particular way to understand those facts.

It’s also a fact that once those Europeans came, the
indigenous people died in large numbers. Was that an
act of genocide? Whatever one’s answer, it will be an
interpretation, a construction of the facts to support
or reject that conclusion.

In contemporary history, has U.S. intervention in the
Middle East been aimed at supporting democracy or
controlling the region’s crucial energy resources?
Would anyone in a free society want students to be
taught that there is only one way to construct an
answer to that question?

Speaking of contemporary history, what about the fact
that before the 2000 presidential election, Florida’s
Republican secretary of state removed 57,700 names from
the voter rolls, supposedly because they were convicted
felons and not eligible to vote. It’s a fact that at
least 90 percent were not criminals -- but were African
American. It’s a fact that black people vote
overwhelmingly Democratic. What conclusion will
historians construct from those facts about how and why
that happened?

In other words, history is always constructed, no
matter how much Florida’s elected representatives might
resist the notion. The real question is: How
effectively can one defend one’s construction? If
Florida legislators felt the need to write a law to
eliminate the possibility of that question even being
asked, perhaps it says something about their faith in
their own view and ability to defend it.

One of the bedrock claims of the scientific revolution
and the Enlightenment -- two movements that, to date,
have not been repealed by the Florida Legislature -- is
that no interpretation or theory is beyond challenge.
The evidence and logic on which all knowledge claims
are based must be transparent, open to examination. We
must be able to understand and critique the basis for
any particular construction of knowledge, which
requires that we understand how knowledge is

Except in Florida.

But as tempting as it is to ridicule, we should not
spend too much time poking fun at this one state,
because the law represents a yearning one can find
across the United States. Americans look out at a wider
world in which more and more people reject the idea of
the United States as always right, always better,
always moral. As the gap between how Americans see
themselves and how the world sees us grows, the
instinct for many is to eliminate intellectual
challenges at home: "We can't control what the rest of
the world thinks, but we can make sure our kids aren't
exposed to such nonsense."

The irony is that such a law is precisely what one
would expect in a totalitarian society, where
governments claim the right to declare certain things
to be true, no matter what the debates over evidence
and interpretation. The preferred adjective in the
United States for this is "Stalinist," a system to
which U.S. policymakers were opposed during the Cold
War. At least, that’s what I learned in history class.

People assume that these kinds of buffoonish actions
are rooted in the arrogance and ignorance of Americans,
and there certainly are excesses of both in the United

But the Florida law -- and the more widespread
political mindset it reflects -- also has its roots in
fear. A track record of relatively successful
domination around the world seems to have produced in
Americans a fear of any lessening of that dominance.
Although U.S. military power is unparalleled in world
history, we can't completely dictate the shape of the
world or the course of events. Rather than examining
the complexity of the world and expanding the scope of
one’s inquiry, the instinct of some is to narrow the
inquiry and assert as much control as possible to avoid
difficult and potentially painful challenges to

Is history "knowable, teachable, and testable?"
Certainly people can work hard to know -- to develop
interpretations of processes and events in history and
to understand competing interpretations. We can teach
about those views. And students can be tested on their
understanding of conflicting constructions of history.

But the real test is whether Americans can come to
terms with not only the grand triumphs but also the
profound failures of our history. At stake in that test
is not just a grade in a class, but our collective

[Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the
University of Texas at Austin and board member of the
Third Coast Activist Resource Center
http://thirdcoastactivist.org/. He is the author of
"The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White
Privilege" and "Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to
Claim Our Humanity" (both from City Lights Books).
Email to: rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.]


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