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 earlier this year 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 bear.
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.” The law is dangerous in two ways.
First, Florida’s lawmakers are prescribing a specific view of U.S. history that must be taught. In addition to listing generic items such as “the history of the state,” the law dictates instruction to students on “the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy” and “the sacrifices that veterans have made in serving our country and protecting democratic values worldwide.” (emphasis added)
Second, legislators are trying to define 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 interpretation.
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 Americans. 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 constructed.
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. policy makers 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 States.
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 many 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 orthodoxy.
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 future.