History Defined in Florida Legislature
Bruce Craig, September 2006
Buried in a 160-page bill—the Florida Education Omnibus Bill (H.B. 7087e3), essentially a comprehensive K–12 education bill—that Florida Governor Jeb Bush recently signed into law, are new provisions designed to "meet the highest standards for professionalism and historic accuracy." Some Florida history teachers, though have questioned the philosophical underpinnings of the law.
The most controversial passage states: "American history shall be viewed as factual, not 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." To that end teachers are charged not only to focus on the history and content of the Declaration but are also instructed to teach the "history, meaning, significance and effect of the provisions of the Constitution of the United States and the amendments thereto." Other bill provisions place new emphasis on "flag education, including proper flag display and flag salute" and on teaching "the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy."
Unlike the U.S. Senate version of the proposed new federal "Higher Education Act" (S. 1614) that defines "traditional American history" as "significant constitutional, political, intellectual, economic and foreign policy trends and issues that have shaped the course of American history. . . key episodes, turning points, and leading figures," the Florida statute does not specifically define American history at all. Rather, it describes what American history is through listing specific periods and episodes: "the period of discovery, early colonies, the War for Independence, the Civil War, the expansion of the United States to its present boundaries, the world wars, and the civil rights movement to the present." As a consequence, needless, to say, much is left out.
In addition, special provisions are in the law, mandating the teaching of the history of the Holocaust, the history of African Americans, and Hispanic "contributions" to the United States. However, the role that Native Americans played in American history escapes mention. In highly prescriptive language the law states that students are to be taught "the arguments in support of adopting our republican form of government" as embodied in the Federalist Papers. The proscriptive language causes thoughtful teachers to wonder whether they are permitted to teach the line of reasoning advanced by the anti-federalists.
While the goal of the bill's designers is "to raise historical literacy" concerning the documents, people, and events that shaped the nation, some history educators question the emphasis on teaching only "facts." In response to questions posed by Tampa Patriot newspaper reporter Catherine Dolinski, State Representative Shelley Vana, who also serves as the West Palm Beach teachers union president, wondered just "whose facts would they be, Christopher Columbus's or the Indians?"
According to the Tampa Patriot story, Theron Trimble, executive director of the Florida Council for the Social Studies, also questions provisions in the bill that declares that teachers are not to "construct" history. Trimble asserts that "American history tends to get reinterpreted and re-reviewed in cycles . . . . It's a natural evolution, history is as changeable as the law." Perhaps Jennifer Morely, an American history and government teacher, best summarized the concerns of her colleagues: "If you just require students to memorize information, that's not the best way to create active citizens...we're just creating little robots."
The new law took effect July 1. Shortly thereafter, the Florida's department of education will have begun reviewing their history standards and then, will begin in 2007, to review their textbooks.
—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.