Publication Date

March 30, 2023

Perspectives Section

From the Association

AHA Topic

AHA Initiatives & Projects, Graduate Education, Professional Life, Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education

Post Type

Academic Freedom, Advocacy, Departments & Institutions, History Education

Geographic

  • United States

Thematic

Political, State & Local (US), Teaching Methods

The AHA normally focuses attention on implications for history and the work of historians or on the use and abuse of history in policy formation. The following statement is something of an exception in its broader scope. Hence it took a bit of time to craft and approve: we don’t take exceptions lightly, and we articulate them carefully with input from staff and Council.

However, this statement lies very much within the landscape of the AHA’s recent advocacy relating to the “divisive concepts” legislation referenced herein. We have opposed this pernicious legislation and will continue to do so. The basic principle is that legislation claiming to preserve national unity by denying the centrality of racism in the evolution of American institutions, culture, and structures instead perpetuates division. It is not possible to heal a disease without full medical history. That history must be explored and discussed. AHA members can readily remind their neighbors and legislators that attempting to forge unity by eliminating dissent has never turned out well.

James Grossman, AHA executive director

HB 999, filed in the Florida House of Representatives on February 21, 2023, merits attention and comment.

The American Historical Association has been monitoring the genre of legislation commonly referred to as “divisive concepts” bills for two years. Normally we do not engage with what gets fed into the hopper; we wait until legislation is viable, generally when a bill emerges from committee. But HB 999 is different, and we consider it imperative to speak out immediately and forcefully. What has previously best been characterized as unwarranted political intervention into public education has now escalated to an attempt at a hostile takeover of a state’s system of higher education.

HB 999 is different, and we consider it imperative to speak out immediately and forcefully.

We express horror (not our usual “concern”) at the assumptions that lie at the heart of this bill and its blatant and frontal attack on principles of academic freedom and shared governance central to higher education in the United States. Florida’s legislature has on its agenda a dagger to the heart of an American institutional framework that has long been the envy of the world (and a source of billions of dollars in revenue from international students).

What would implementation of this legislation look like? Consider history education.

HB 999 allows political appointees unprecedented oversight of day-to-day educational decisions. Universities and departments will face consequences should unelected partisan actors decide that any “general education core courses” somehow “suppress or distort significant historical events.” All history teachers “suppress” some events; everything has a history, and no course can include all histories. It is up to the teacher, within reasonable state guidelines, to select what is most important and most useful to students in a particular class. All else is “suppressed.”

The bill also gives to boards of trustees the authority to determine if and when teachers of a mandated set of core courses have “define[d] American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” Is it illegal for a faculty member to suggest that the US Constitution, rather than the Declaration of Independence, created the political framework for the new nation? Given that HB 999 would empower boards of regents to review the tenure status of any faculty member, such legitimate (and pedagogically useful) interpretive disagreements could have dire implications for all instructors, even faculty best protected by traditional norms of governance and procedure.

This is not merely an escalation of the “history wars” that have ebbed and flowed across the American landscape—and indeed, in other nations as well; the United States is hardly exceptional in this regard. Like the proponents of more conventional “divisive concepts” legislation, advocates of this particular assault especially fear the implications of the state’s youth learning that slavery and racism have enduring legacies. The idea that racism is a central aspect of American historical development—and its enduring presence in institutions, cultures, and practices—is well within the mainstream of historical scholarship, however much we might disagree about dynamics, relationships, and models of change. Notably, HB 999 mentions “critical race theory” more often than the words “democracy,” “freedom,” and “liberty” combined. This legislation aims to incite and divide, rather than to establish a healthy foundation for civic understanding.

The idea that racism is a central aspect of American historical development is well within the mainstream of historical scholarship.

The AHA does not disagree with HB 999’s premise that the mission of the state university system should be “education for citizenship of the constitutional republic [and] . . . the state’s existing and emerging workforce needs.” Employers look for applicants who have learned how to think, rather than what to think. Using evidence and deciding what facts matter is vital to being a successful engineer, doctor, or teacher. Would we want heart surgeons whose coursework or choice of tools had been dictated by political appointees? As for the viability of our constitutional republic, it is neither possible nor desirable to forge unity by refusing to acknowledge and understand division; instead, the very language of this legislation sows and perpetuates division. An informed citizenry requires the skills of historical literacy and the ability to test ideas, which is the core of history education.

This is not only about Florida. It is about the heart and soul of public higher education in the United States and about the role of history, historians, and historical thinking in the lives of the next generation of Americans.

Approved by the AHA Council on March 3, 2023. Se the full list of signatories here.

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