Saturday, June 10, 2006


Now Florida joins Kansas in enacting laws that amount to a pernicious insertion of politics into the curriculum. While spokespersons on the Right continue to fulminate against the supposed program of tenured radicals to politicize education, politicians on the Right proceed to use their legislative powers to impose their politics on the classroom.

In an intriguing editorial that appeared earlier in the week in the Los Angeles Times, NYU professor of history and education Jonathan Zimmerman examines the Florida Education Omnibus Bill, recently signed into law by Governor Jeb Bush.

Part of that bill requires that 'The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth." Further, the bill mandates that "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed."

As Zimmerman points out in his editorial, "the Florida law is itself a revisionist history," as it relies upon a theoretically constructed, and highly arguable, view of the history of the teaching of history. That construction would not long survive even the most cursory contact with the "facts" of history teaching in the United States. In fact, the "revisionist" history they seem most exercised about was primarily a matter of introducing facts into the curriculum that had been ignored in earlier histories.

But look at the strange language at work here. In the Florida legislature, "fact" is opposed to "construction," which to my mind is rather like opposing telling a lie to building a car. Florida's political leadership has here mandated logical incoherence, and one shudders to think of the mischief that could be brought under this law. On the other hand, it will be entertaining to see political figures who routinely denounce activist judges and appeal to original intent trying to explain in court cases just what form of "revision" they meant to banish from the schools. For that matter, it may be interesting to see what truths will be held not to be self-evident under this law. Imagine, if you can, a court case in which the judge attempts to discern what constitutes "genuine history" under the provisions of this law.

One thing rings clearly from the text of this bill. Neither the legislators who enacted the law nor the governor who signed it into law have any idea what they are talking about. Not only do they seem to believe that facts can't be constructed, but they believe that postmodernism means a belief in something called "relative truth."

Now, I wouldn't necessarily expect the Florida legislature to engage in a philosophical examination of what it means for something to be true, which is what the "truth" debate within studies of postmodernity has been about, but I would hope they'd at least bother to find out what has been true about the revisions in the history of teaching history prior to banning something they seem incapable of defining.

Near the end of the Clinton impeachment hearings, a congressman from Florida took the mic to declare that the real issue (I know, you thought it had something to do with sex and a blue dress, you revisionist) was a cultural war between people who believe in the truth and people who think that everything is relative.

It seems to me that the truth has more to fear from Florida's legislators than it does from Florida's history teachers.

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