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

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

When I joined the faculty of the University of Central Florida in 2004, debates about the teaching of history in public schools and the social sciences and humanities in state universities had intensified, becoming increasingly partisan and politicized.

The Republican-dominated Florida Legislature considered two bills in 2005/2006. One, the Florida Education Omnibus Bill (H.B. 7087e3), which then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law, mandated the curricular content of K-12 history education. A year earlier, three Republican lawmakers had filed H.B. 0837, An Act Relating to Student and Faculty Academic Freedom in Postsecondary Education, but it did not go up for a vote.

The school law prescribed the content of history curricula. It emphasized the study of America's best known (and least divisive) foundational documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with special attention to the Bill of Rights. It also outlined the topics to be covered in history courses, including the standard episodes: "discovery," the Colonial era, the Civil War, westward expansion and the World Wars.

To their credit, lawmakers also made provision for subjects associated with progressive views: the civil rights movement, Holocaust education to encourage "tolerance of diversity in a pluralistic society," African American history, the "contributions" of women and Hispanics and even the "protection of natural resources."

Other curricular prescriptions responded to conservative goals. While the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are widely embraced as bipartisan historical texts, the new provisions included the Federalist Papers, which were originally and continue to be partisan documents.

Other guidelines reflected mostly conservative positions such as sexual abstinence education, "the nature and importance of free enterprise" and the promotion of patriotism through "flag education" and the celebration of veterans.

The most controversial aspects of the law had little to do with what subjects were included and what subjects were left out, but rather with the definition of the historical discipline produced by those who "couldn't teach" but believed themselves qualified to "pass laws about teaching." As defined by the Florida Legislature, American history "shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable" -- remember that Gov. Bush was a fervent promoter of the Florida Comprehension Assessment Test (FCAT) standardized tests that were an integral part of the No Child left Behind Act, which his brother signed into federal law in 2001.

Well yes, history must be factual; it should not be made up! But the majority of Florida's lawmakers seemed to ignore the facts that only a tiny proportion of history's facts have been recorded and that the people who recorded them privileged certain facts over others for inclusion: those they deemed either important or expedient or both. As one of the bill's critics, state Rep. (and teacher) Shelley Vana wondered, "whose facts would they be, Christopher Columbus's or the Indians?"

Because the extant historical record has been created mostly by those with the power to do so and because invariably they had biases, agendas and blind spots, history, contrary to the belief of the law's crafters, is indeed constructed.

 

The same legislators who established provisions for K-12 history education had previously considered a bill "Relating to Student and Faculty Academic Freedom in Postsecondary Education." Primarily motivated by a desire to protect students' rights to "a learning environment in which they have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion," and "to be graded without discrimination on the basis of their political or religious beliefs," the bill also had the stated intent of protecting the academic freedom and "intellectual independence" of professors and researchers and banning the imposition of any ideological orthodoxy on members of the university community.

The bill went further. It chastised professors "who persistently introduce controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to the subject of study and serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose" and mandated that professors "make their students aware of serious scholarly viewpoints other than their own."

No one can honestly deny that university faculty, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, tend to inhabit the left side of the spectrum -- I know; I am one of them. Some -- perhaps too many -- are intolerant of conservative or heterodox perspectives. I also know; I have been on the receiving end of their intolerance.

But academic orthodoxy can't and shouldn't be outlawed. Gov. Bush found the bill problematic and saw it as an invitation to waves of lawsuits by students and faculty who were or felt aggravated by ideological intolerance. That is why he opposed it and it did not go up for a vote.

To be continued.

Luis Martinez-Fernandez is a Writing Fellow at Heterodox Academy.

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Luis Martinez-Fernandez is author of "Revolutionary Cuba: A History." Readers can reach him at LMF_Column@yahoo.com. 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. creators.com.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

 

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