Monday, July 03, 2006


A while back I wrote in this space about the legislation recently passed in the state of Florida requiring that in Florida schools "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed," that it "shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable."

Now, the thought of teachers having to be required by law to regard their subject matter as teachable is in itself striking, but how are Florida's champions of the factual and knowable doing?

In my previous posting I pointed out just how constructed the legislators' own view of the history of the teaching of history was. In yesteday's NEW YORK TIMES, Cornell professor Mary Beth Norton points to another portion of the bill that seems particularly relevant as we celebrate the Fourth of July.

The Florida bill places especially strong emphasis on the Declaration of Independence with its appeal to natural rights and the equality of men. The new legislation requires that the history of the United States be taught under the view of the USA as "a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence." Among those principles the Florida legislature regards as "stated" in the Declaration, as Norton points out, are the "inalienable rights of life, liberty and property."

Apparently the Florida teachers are required to teach a version of US history in which the Declaration is drafted by John Locke rather than Thomas Jefferson. Somehow somebody in power in Florida is trying to undo the work of the Revolutionary War. Jefferson's crucial change of "property" to "the pursuit of happiness" is something it might be good for students and teachers to contemplate in their classrooms. But at any rate, I think we can all agree that if we are to pass laws requiring that teachers teach what is stated in the Declaration of Independence, they should at the very least teach what actually is stated in the Declaration, not this revisionist model recently given the force of law by politicians who clearly have not read the document themsleves.

Maybe we could all spend part of this holiday reading the Declaration of Independence -- In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that, in the interests of a teachable, knowable, testable history, we teach the earlier versions of Jefferson's draft, the versions that included among the bill of particulars against the King a complaint about the slave trade. Maybe it would be good for our students and teachers, for all of us, to spend a few moments thinking about why that provision was deleted from the Declaration, and what consequences that may have eventually had in places like, say, Florida.

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