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At its meeting on January 7, 2007, the Council of the American Historical Association approved the following statement, prepared by the Professional Division.

In June 2006 the Florida House of Representatives passed, and Governor Jeb Bush signed into law, an omnibus education bill. This included detailed directions for the teaching of history in public schools. One paragraph aroused particular interest, not only in Florida but around the country:

The history of the United States, including 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. 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.

The original text of the bill contained even stronger language, which was eventually stricken from the final text: “The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth.” The explicit statement makes clear, as early drafts of legislation often do, what motivated the drafting of this section of the bill. In the last couple of decades, the framer or framers of this paragraph believe, “revisionist” or “postmodernist” historians have begun to argue that all history is a matter of interpretation rather than truth. Such ideas corrupt the practice and teaching of history, and should—in the frank language of the original bill—be banned from schools.

The language of the original draft suggests that the authors of the bill have little direct knowledge of history as it has been practiced in the modern world. “Revisionist” history has been practiced for almost a century—since 1913, when Charles Beard published his economic interpretations of the origins of the American Constitution, and variants of it have been applied to the Industrial Revolution, the Revolution, the Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cold War and many other historical issues and problems. Revisionists, for the most part, are the opposite of relativists. They argue that standard accounts of a given event are incorrect, and that new documents or new interpretations of known documents can prove that this is true. Even the so-called Revisionists who deny that the Holocaust took place pay lip service to the truth by claiming that documents and testimony support their views. “Postmodernist” historians, for their part, argue not that there is no truth, but that no single document or set of them fully and perfectly reflects the past, and that all documents need, and will always need, to be interpreted. The Florida legislature did well to strike the clause in question.

Even the paragraph that passed, however, is deeply flawed—as distinguished historians and journalists noted in editorials in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. For more than a century, the American Historical Association has stood for the honorable pursuit of historical research. In its Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, the Association insists that all competent historians accept certain fundamental principles in research, such as the difference between primary sources—original evidence—and secondary sources—interpretations of that evidence. It also demands that all historians record the sources they have used, so that others can retrace their steps and test their arguments.

But the American Historical Association has also made clear, in the same statement, that all historians come to their sources from different standpoints and interpret them in different ways:

Everyone who comes to the study of history brings with them a host of identities, experiences, and interests that cannot help but affect the questions they ask of the past and the answers they wish to know. When applied with integrity and self-critical fair-mindedness, the political, social, and religious beliefs of historians can appropriately inform their historical practice. Because the questions we ask profoundly shape everything we do—the topics we investigate, the evidence we gather, the arguments we construct, the stories we tell—it is inevitable that different historians will produce different histories.

For this reason, historians often disagree and argue with each other. That historians can sometimes differ quite vehemently not just about interpretations but even about the basic facts of what happened in the past is sometimes troubling to non-historians, especially if they imagine that history consists of a universally agreed-upon accounting of stable facts and known certainties. But universal agreement is not a condition to which historians typically aspire. Instead, we understand that interpretive disagreements are vital to the creative ferment of our profession, and can in fact contribute to some of our most original and valuable insights.

History, accordingly, is not and cannot ever be a uniform recitation of truths on which all scholars agree: “Every work of history articulates a particular, limited perspective on the past. Historians hold this view not because they believe that all interpretations are equally valid, or that nothing can ever be known about the past, or that facts do not matter. Quite the contrary. History would be pointless if such claims were true, since its most basic premise is that within certain limits we can indeed know and make sense of past worlds and former times that now exist only as remembered traces in the present. But the very nature of our discipline means that historians also understand that all knowledge is situated in time and place, that all interpretations express a point of view, and that no mortal mind can ever aspire to omniscience. Because the record of the past is so fragmentary, absolute historical knowledge is denied us.”

There is nothing revisionist or postmodern about these statements. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the great French historian Jacques-Auguste de Thou spent decades trying to write an impartial history of the age of the Reformation, he sent draft sections of his work to scholars across Europe, asking them to correct his errors. At least one of his correspondents, the Augsburg scholar Mark Welser, saw exactly why de Thou’s efforts were futile. Errors could be corrected: but every historian worked from a knowledge base that could not, in the nature of things, be complete: “Truth lies at the bottom of the well. We drink water from the surface in its place, especially when we rely on the testimony of others to scoop it up.” Moreover, Welser noted, every historian has a point of view: “Take the history of Charles V and Francis I: a Frenchman and a German will always tell it differently, and the one will never persuade the other of what he himself thinks is true.”

The practice of history has changed in the last four hundred years. But professional historians still recognize that no account of the past is ever perfect or complete, any more than any given scientific hypothesis. The recent demotion of Pluto from its status as a planet reminds us that even natural scientists revise their conclusions periodically. Historians do exactly the same. It is right to teach students that every historian must work as accurately and honestly as he or she can. But it is simply wrong to tell them that any single account of history is simply “factual.”