New Florida Law Tightens Control Over History in Schools

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Florida Governor Jeb Bush has signed into law a new comprehensive K-12th grade education bill – the Florida Education Omnibus Bill (H.B. 7087e3). Buried in the 160-page bill are new provisions designed to “meet the highest standards for professionalism and historic accuracy.” Some Florida history teachers, though, question the philosophical underpinnings of the law.

The most controversial passage states: “American history shall be viewed as factual, not 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.” To that end teachers are charged not only to focus on the history and content of the Declaration but are also instructed to teach the “history, meaning, significance and effect of the provisions of the Constitution of the United States and the amendments thereto...” Other bill provisions place new emphasis on “flag education, including proper flag display and flag salute” and on the need to teach “the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.”

Unlike U.S. Senate version of the proposed new federal “Higher Education Act” (S. 1614) that seeks to define “traditional” American history, the Florida statute does not specifically define American history at all, rather, it describes what it is to include: “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.” Special provisions mandate the teaching of the history of the Holocaust, the history of African Americans, and Hispanic “contributions” to the United States. The role that Native Americans played in American history escapes mention. In highly prescriptive language students are to be taught “the arguments in support of adopting our republican form of government” as embodied in the Federalist Papers. The proscriptive language causes thoughtful teachers to wonder whether they are permitted to teach the line of reasoning advanced by the anti-federalists.

While the goal of the bill’s designers is “to raise historical literacy” concerning the documents, people, and events that shaped the nation, some history educators question the emphasis on teaching only “facts.” State Representative Shelley Vana, who also serves as the West Palm Beach teachers union president wonders “whose facts would they be, Christopher Columbus’s or the Indians?”

Theron Trimble, executive director of the Florida Council for the Social Studies, also questions the bill’s provisions that declares that teachers are not to “construct” history. Trimble asserts that “American history tends to get reinterpreted and re-reviewed in cycles...It’s a natural evolution, history is as changeable as the law.” Perhaps Jennifer Morely, an American history and government teacher, best summarized the concerns of her colleagues: “If you just require students to memorize information, that’s not the best way to create active citizens...we’re just creating little robots.”

The new law takes effect 1 July. Shortly thereafter, the state department of education will begin reviewing their standards and textbooks in 2007.

Read entire article at Bruce Craig in the newsletter of the National Coalition for History

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Jim Dudley - 8/7/2006

The passage if such a bill is a fool's errand. History is the discussion and interpretation of the 'facts'. What Florida is now required to do in highschool history classes is to teach chronology, unless there is a follow-on bill that will interpret these facts for everyone.

With such vague language this bill can only be of value when school administrations need to find some excuse to remove a teacher that they cannot otherwise fire. As for the longterm effect upon the student, it will be minimal. Most college freshman and sophomore history classes are already devoted to correcting the "facts" that are erroneously presented in highschool history.

However, it is unfortunate that with all of the problems in American public school education that any state legislature would find time to devote to those problems and then waste it on so pointless an effort.