From the Left



An Almost Dangerous Occupation? Teaching History in Florida's Public Schools and State Universities: Part I

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

Last June, the government of Florida enacted two controversial and seemingly contradictory education mandates. On June 10, at the urging of Florida's Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state's board of education banned the teaching of "critical race theory" in public schools. Later that month, DeSantis signed into law an "intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity" bill aimed at Florida's state universities.

As a historian and university professor, the higher education mandate touches me directly; as someone who inherits students that come out of the state's public schools, the K-12 directives impact my work as well.


These government actions have long roots that date at least to the "culture wars" of the 1980s and 1990s, when American society became increasingly divided and polarized over a number of cultural issues, including abortion and what some then called "family values;" gun ownership; the separation of church and state; and the role of government in general.

Because education is the population's primary socializer, those on either side of these issues pointed their attention to K-12 education, where children are first exposed to social studies and history courses that address social, cultural and political subjects; and to university campuses, which some conservatives increasingly viewed as unpatriotic institutions for left-wing indoctrination.

Tellingly, at the time when this country was having bitter debates over school national history standards, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said provocatively: "Being a historian has almost become a dangerous occupation."

Originally spearheaded by conservative National Endowment for the Humanities Director Lynne Cheney, the resulting American History Standards were too radical and politically correct for conservatives. Cheney famously tabulated the number of times certain topics and individuals were mentioned in the new standards draft report: the "white males" Paul Revere, Robert E. Lee, J.P. Morgan, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk (0 times); Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Ulysses S. Grant (1 time); Harriet Tubman (6 times); the Seneca Falls "Declaration of Sentiments" and American Federation of Labor (9 times, each); the Ku Klux Klan (17 times) and Sen. Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism (19 times).

One thing was true: Those American history standards reflected the predominantly progressive views of historian Gary Nash's team at UCLA's National Center for History in the Schools, which in turn reflected the profound transformations in the historical discipline over the previous three decades. "New history," as it was then called, expanded its focus to include women, minorities, workers and other people previously "without history," and embraced new methodologies (i.e., quantification) that could answer social history questions about common individuals' quotidian life.

The discipline's transformation brought along a greater degree of professional activism and advocacy as well as left-leaning politicization. It is important to mention, however, that previous generations of historians, short of being politically neutral, generally espoused an uncritical, triumphalist view of American history.


Historians and other social scientists and humanities scholars, it is no secret, are generally progressive; some are clearly on the left; very few are conservative because, let's face it, universities and the academy have very little tolerance for conservative views. Find me a right-wing university historian and I'll trade him for a left-wing member of my local chamber of commerce.

Schlesinger characterized the final revised version of the national history standards as a "sturdy and valuable document, sober, judicious and thoughtful." But at the same time, he recognized that there were extremists at both ends of the political spectrum. "Therapists," he called them in derision, who seek to "convert history into cheerleading -- each seeking to promote its own values."

Among the culture wars' collateral damage was the teaching profession. Some conservative voices chastised schoolteachers as incompetent, uncaring and greedy. Someone coined and others repeated the insulting slogan: "Those who can, do; and those who can't, teach." I remember seeing a satirical political cartoon in which an angry taxpayer demanded that teacher's salaries be cut; his interlocutor asked him why he was proposing such a thing, to which the protester responded that he had no power over the astronomical salaries of athletes and movie stars, but he could do something about the compensation of his school district's teachers.

Years later, teachers and their advocates retorted with a slogan of their own. One can purchase online pins, T-shirts and bumper stickers that read: "Those who can, teach. Those who cannot, pass laws about teaching."

To be continued.

Luis Martinez-Fernandez is a Fellow of the Heterodox Academy's Writing Group


Luis Martinez-Fernandez is author of "Revolutionary Cuba: A History." Readers can reach him at To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.

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