I see W. isn’t the only shining beacon of intelligence to have sprung from the beefy loins of the senior Barbara Bush. Down in Florida, where all that water surrounding the state appears to have caused some folks to go a mite whimsical in the brainpan, Georgie’s brother Jeb has decided that “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.” Well. Glad to have that settled.
I don’t suppose Jeb has any advice as to which facts are to be known, does he? At least the first couple of clauses of that phrase above would allow a history textbook consisting of nothing but a description of meals eaten by George Washington (so long as the contents of those meals could be verified, of course), the number of trees on Button Gwinnett’s properties, hobo symbols, or any other random collection of facts. Absurd, you say? Probably…but the moment you decide which facts (of which there are rather a many) are worth “knowing, teaching, and testing,” you’re (uh-oh…) “constructing” history.
This is not, as historian Jonathan Zimmerman points out, some newfangled postmodern deconstruction wafted forth from suspiciously perfumed cheese-eating surrender academies. Rather, it’s been a recognized aspect of the historian’s work since at least the 1920s. Florida Republican representative Richard Glorioso, co-sponsor of the bill, says, “I don’t want [historians] to construct anything. I want students to read the original documents,” such as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. However laudable the goal to have students read the founding documents of our nation, those students will run into trouble under the Florida standards the moment they start having questions about the documents – even on as basic a level as what some vocabulary item obscure to them means. I mean, the courts haven’t been able to settle on an agree definition of the phrase “a well-regulated militia” – inevitably, trying to figure that out involves (competing) constructions of history.
Theron Trimble, who is executive director of the Florida Council for the Social Studies, wonders whether the Battle of Little Big Horn is to be regarded as “an atrocious massacre by bloodthirsty savages or a last-ditch effort by a people to save their homeland from a bunch of European invaders” When Rep. Glorioso imitates Joe Friday saying “just the facts, ma’am,” he clearly can offer no answer to questions like that one – since they are not fact-based at all, but interpretive. History stripped of all interpretation is meaningless, just as words stripped of context are meaningless (or nearly so: I say “bunny” and you assume I mean…what, exactly? You need to know more – you need context.) – and worse yet, it’s utterly boring, a surefire route to solving students’ sleep disorders.
Reporter Catherine Dolinski notes that “Glorioso said he simply wants students and teachers to get the fundamental facts straight.” Who decides which facts are fundamental? And who decides the significance, the consequences, the implications of those facts? Some indications: An entry in the Daily Kos quotes a passage from the bill–
The history and content of the Declaration of Independence, including national sovereignty, natural law, self-evident truth, equality of all persons, limited government, popular sovereignty, and inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property, and how they form the philosophical foundation of our government.
“Limited government”? Really. Wasn’t there, uh, a bit of debate about the scope of government in the early days of the republic? Apparently, that debate has now been retroactively settled – by the Florida State Legislature, that renowned body of indisputable historical last resort.
(Note: all the links above were brought to my attention via David Davisson’s article in George Mason University’s History News Network.)
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Here is a factual, knowable, and teachable slice of ’80s musical history. Wire offer “a soundtrack for your silence, insincere” while sagely observing that “it’s all history“; Gang of Four propose a “universal principle” that “History’s Bunk“; and Split Enz, from one of those countries that gets the seasons all backwards forchrissakes, suggests that “History Never Repeats.” Unless, of course, you don’t know it.