History 101: Florida's Flawed Lesson Plan


J. L. Bell is a writer specializing in the history of Boston before and during the Revolution. He has published articles in both scholarly and popular journals, and maintains a blog called Boston 1775.

Last month Florida governor Jeb Bush signed a law revising teaching standards in the state’s public schools in ways that have caused some dismay among historians. At the top of the list of what will be taught is:

(a) The history and content of the Declaration of Independence, including national sovereignty, natural law, self-evident truth, equality of all persons, limited government, popular sovereignty, and inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property, and how they form the philosophical foundation of our government.

Later (in section f) the law adds:

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.

This law is, of course, a construction of U.S. history. The words “shall be viewed” show that, even as lawmakers insist on one interpretation of American history, they acknowledge others. In fact, we can see how the Florida legislature has constructed a particular understanding of the past by looking at its presentation of the Declaration of Independence.

  1. “All men are created equal” has become “equality of all persons.” Following the 19th Amendment and the feminist movement, modern Americans interpret the Declaration’s word “men” to mean “adult humans.” But that’s a construction—in fact, a reconstruction—of most founders’ obvious understanding, based on their actions, that those rights belonged to adult white males.
  2. “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has become “life, liberty, and property.” Many eighteenth-century documents did highlight the threesome of life, liberty, and property. But the Declaration never uses the word “property.” The Florida law uses it twice in three pages and never uses “happiness,” which hints at what matters to these modern legislators.
  3. “limited government” must be reconciled with the first three complaints about King George III in the Declaration: “He has refused his Assent to Laws. . . . He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws. . . . He has refused to pass other Laws...” Congress said that Americans wanted more laws than the king and his ministers would allow. In other parts of the Declaration, of course, Congress complained about too many royal regulations. So, as with a lot of “limited government” advocacy, we have to look at exactly what sort of law and limits the advocates want. In general, people want less government authority over themselves and more over others.
  4. “national sovereignty” and “popular sovereignty”: How has the legislature constructed these as separate items? How does the state define “national”? Or “popular”? Since Congress went on to adopt the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, which starts, “Each state retains its sovereignty...,” those founders apparently felt they were representing multiple sovereign nations. According to the law, “American history...shall be defined as the creation of a new nation,” and presumably that nation is still being created since American history continues to pile up. So when does “national sovereignty” kick in?
  5. How does Florida fit into its own official picture of the past? It stayed part of the British Empire until the end of the Revolutionary War, when it returned to the Spanish Empire before being purchased and conquered by the U.S. of A. decades later. Therefore, it wasn’t party to the Declaration of Independence, and the people living there didn’t have a chance to demonstrate “national sovereignty” or “popular sovereignty,” either. In 1861 the state government seceded from the U.S. of A., constructing a different “new nation” for a brief period. The clause in the law about teaching “The history of the state” says simply, “The history of the state.” There are no values-laden interpretations about how Florida’s history fits with “the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” It just does because those are universal principles—the government tells us so.

The Florida law’s summation of the philosophical basis of the Declaration of Independence isn’t bad. But by pretending that there are no conflicts inherent in those principles or in how people put them into practice, the state government has constructed a particular picture of the past. That may make history more “testable,” which is such a vital quality in modern American education. But it sets students up for a very bad understanding of history. Claiming that history isn’t constructed is like claiming that literature isn’t interpreted, or that science isn’t based on hypotheses.

What other topics does the Florida law mandate teaching, and what do they tell us about the legislature’s construction of the past and present? The categories are:

  1. (b) The U.S. Constitution.
  2. (c) “arguments in support of adopting our republican form of government, as they are embodied in the most important of the Federalist Papers.” This construction omits the 1780s arguments in support of the previous republican form of government, under the Articles of Confederation. Florida children may never learn about that debate since the Articles aren’t mentioned in the state law. And will this Bush administration in Florida decide that Federalist 69 is among the “most important”?
  3. (d) Flag education. Look at all the items this purely symbolic topic precedes.
  4. (e) Civil government from federal to district level.
  5. (f) “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.” Topics left out of the mandate as constructed: industrialization and technology, the labor movement, immigration and immigration restrictions, the Great Depression and other economic downturns, the Cold War, religious changes, social reform movements, and the effects of the environment on human affairs. In addition, the delicate word “expansion” hides the fact that the U.S. reached its present boundaries largely through wars.
  6. (g) The Nazi Holocaust.
  7. (h) African-American history. This must include “the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery.” At the History News Network, David Davisson points out, “As far as I’m aware slavery existed before our earliest known written history and continues to exist today. What political conflicts led to the development of slavery?”
  8. (i) Principles of agriculture.
  9. (j) Effects of alcoholic liquors and narcotics.
  10. (k) “Kindness to animals.” In potential conflict with point (i), of course.
  11. (l) Florida history. As mentioned above, Florida became part of the U.S. of A. after conquest and ethnic cleansing of the Seminole population. But kids don’t need to worry about conflicting voices—this law never mentions North America’s native peoples.
  12. (m) Conservation of natural resources. Which might also come into conflict with principle (i).
  13. (n) Health education. This clause puts “the benefits of sexual abstinence” ahead of all these other health topics: “injury prevention and safety; nutrition; personal health; prevention and control of disease; and substance use and abuse.” That last item is apparently separate from point (j). The next section of the law says any student can opt out of learning about reproductive health; there is no explicit exemption for any other topic.
  14. (o) Anything else the state or district school boards prescribe. The “&c.” clause.
  15. (p) OOPS! We forgot “The study of Hispanic contributions to the United States.”
  16. (q) OOPS again! We left out half the population: “The study of women’s contributions to the United States.”
  17. (r) “The nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.” But not any study of economic regulation, including mercantilism in the age of discovery, property laws, patent and copyright laws, labor laws, unemployment and Social Security insurance, safety laws, the Federal Reserve system, laws mandating conservation as specified in point (m), &c.
  18. (s) “A character-development program in the elementary schools.” First on the list of what such a program should stress is “patriotism,” implying that’s more important to character than, say, empathy for other people. Also on the list: “respect for authority, life, liberty, and personal property.” Not on the list: critical thinking. Indeed, the words “think,” “thought,” and “reasoning” don’t appear anywhere in the law.
  19. (t) “sacrifices that veterans have made.” And the constructed reason for including this topic is not historical accuracy or gratitude, but “In order to encourage patriotism.”

I’ve long felt that if schools teach American history accurately, including the fact that there are different ways of viewing the past, the U.S. of A. will get the respect it deserves. Florida’s lawmakers obviously don’t have the same faith.

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More Comments:

Raul A Garcia - 7/4/2008

Exactly what is missing in this mandate is political history. This is simplistic history for an FCAT test. The omission of native americans, Hispanics, women is troublesome. Since I teach in Florida I am greatly troubled by Mr. Bush's factual history. Are students not allowed to think? History not a construction? Nonsense! I teach my students to think critically and that history is necessarily an interpretative quest, complex and not reducible to 2+2=4. I am aghast at this direction in our subject and curriculum!

Bradley Smith - 3/5/2008

Excellent, provocative article.

(t) “sacrifices that veterans have made.” And the constructed reason for including this topic is not historical accuracy or gratitude, but “In order to encourage patriotism.”

Category 19 (t) cuts to the heart of much of "History 101," yet does not appear to be at the heart of public debate. So long as the State is broadly responsible for education, "patriotism" will be the cornerstone of the system. This might be a good part of why the Congress, and the citizenry, are so willing so often to involve Americans in one catastrophic decision after another. What "patriot" would not "support our men and women" in Iraq? What decent citizen (patriot) would not support the U.S. alliance with Israel?

The first reason for public (State) education is, simply, to create patriots--those who support the State from a to z.

Chris Wehner - 7/21/2006

Hey, I had a question, what did you mean by this statement: ".. if schools teach American history accurately, including the fact that there are different ways of viewing the past, the U.S. of A. will get the respect it deserves."

Whose respect will it help us earn?

S J - 7/19/2006

This reminds me of the controversy that took place in my home state of Minnesota earlier this year. The history faculty took charge in reversing the embarrassing trend. Maybe historians in Florida might learn from what happened in the North Star State.

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