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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Thank you, Florida, for making Kansas seem less idiotic...Rant re: teaching history "as fact"...Florida takes the thinking out of learning...

I was going to save rants and ramblings for Saturdays, but I couldn't sit on this one...

I live in Kansas. I love my home state in many ways. In other ways, however, it can be sort of humiliating to come from the Sunflower State. No, I am not bothered by "Wizard of Oz" cracks or questions about whether I have wheat and cattle in my backyard. That's fine. The embarassing part is when people bring up our state's crazy position on evolution and "intelligent design" in the classroom. (It also isn't very cool being the home state of Rev. Fred Phelps, but he is a lone whack job with a hostage family of church members, so I let that one sort of roll off me--though it would make my day if he moved to Missouri).

Anyway, in political terms (especially with regard to education issues), Kansas isn't always the coolest place. However, I have learned of a state that makes our officials look as wise as Solomon himself by comparison. Thank you, Florida, for making my home state seem a little less stupid.

The other day, I was driving along and flipping through radio stations when I heard the very end of a comment about a news story regarding a new Florida law about teaching history in the state's schools. What I heard was so mesmerizingly stupid that I was sure I must have missed something, or mis-heard the announcer.

I didn't.

The History News Network summarizes:

"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."

That doesn't sound so bad, right... Well, just saying words like "professionalism and historic accuracy" doesn't mean that's what the law is about...

HNN continues:
"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, “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.'"

Yeah, it's true. In Florida, history is now a matter of pure fact. It's black and white. No room for interpretation. In fact, interpretation is now a "no-no." If you stray from the legislature's conception of what constitutes American history (and the 160 page statute spells it out for you), you are in trouble, Mr. History Teacher!

This is perhaps the most ridiculous thing I have heard all year, and there is a lot of stupid to go around.

Here's why Floridians should feel even more humiliated than Kansans about their state's education...

It's absolutely the wrong way to teach history. History is comprised of events that occur within contexts. Those events, those contexts, and the ways in which they are viewed are all shaped by prevailing and individual and societal values and mores. To divorce history from "construction" is to rob it of its very meaning. Additionally, forcing history into a legislatively-mandated grid of "proper values and perspectives" is disingenuous. It whitewashes our national history, robbing it of meaning and destroying the natural narrative of history that makes it meaningful in the first place. Florida has reduced history to the equivalent of a spelling test, with the legislature playing the role of Noah Webster.

Robert Jensen summarizes nicely:

"Florida's lawmakers are not only prescribing a specific view of U.S. history that must be taught (my favorite among the specific commands in the law is the one about instructing students on “the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy”), but are trying to legislate out of existence any ideas to the contrary. They are not just saying that their history is the best history, but that it is beyond interpretation. In fact, the law attempts to suppress discussion of the very idea that history is interpretation."

Mombian concurs:

"As any true historian will tell you, however, “constructed’ history is the only kind there is. (I have a postgraduate degree in history from Oxford University, so I claim some expertise in this matter.) Yes, most people will agree that certain people existed and certain events occurred, but it is the interpretation of these events that forms the heart of what history is. Otherwise, it’s just a memorized string of events and dates—and even the “facts” of events happening on particular dates get fuzzy as we move further back in time."

It's dangerous. Here's one of those cliches that are so obvious you can't usually imagine ever having to say them... "If you don't learn from history, it will repeat itself." At the point when the interpretation of history is lost, there is no way to truly learn from it. When you divorce the study of prior events to a litany of proscribed facts, you are able to excise marginalized voices and perspectives that run contrary to prevailing viewpoints. If you "erase" certain ugly parts of the past or decide to interpret all happenings through one big legilsatively-created lens, you set the stage for the worst parts of history repeating themselves again and again.

It's a potential headache for Florida. The Organization of American Historians explains:

"What made the revised language so problematic is that by losing the relativism and postmodern phrasing and instead adopting “factual, not constructed,” it leaves the reader with the impression that history is “just facts” and of course is unchanging and not interpretive in nature. This, of course, is what the lawmakers envision as history; however, the Florida Department of Education, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the National Assessment of Education Progress all demand that history be taught as analytical and interpretive, and that it measure critical thinking. So now the “A-Plus-Plus Plan” directly contradicts the standards and expectations of the federal and state departments of education. These agencies on the federal level assess how effectively states are complying with No Child Left Behind and could open the door for the U.S. Department of Education to rebuke the state over these reductive measures."

Yep. It's stupid AND it probably won't even pass muster under current rules. Nice job, Florida!

It's hopelessly outdated. We are swamped by information. We are not even treading water in the information ocean anymore, we are drowning. It's hard to separate quality information from crap. It's hard to know who is right, the presuppositions they carry as they present their cases, and how all of the information and opinion out there overlap, fit together and connect. Yes, by imposing a rigorous prism through which to view events, Florida has sought to control that problem a little bit. However, what it really does is rob students of the opportunity to develop good information-processing skills.

Teaching lists and facts is meaningless, generally. In today's information-driven society, it is suicidal. You can either teach without intellectual honesty (the Florida approach), or you can actually try to give students the tools necessary to sort through information and to determine its strengths and weaknesses. Those critical thinking skills are derived from exposing students to different perspectives and constructions. Like other skills, they strengthen when they are exercised. If you want better critical thinking skills, you have to let kids think. Think, not memorize or learn how to apply one outlook. Florida is contributing to a society of ignorance by failing to encourage examination of differing viewpoints.

It's fundamentally at odds with our conception of rights. If you have a love for country, you have to hate this law. We embrace free speech as an inalienable right. No, this law doesn't represent a massive restriction on free speech (although some educators might have an argument to the contrary). What it does do, however, is espouse a particular viewpoint as the sole means of examining history. The reason we value free speech is the belief that a free marketplace of ideas will allow the cream to rise to the top. We appreciate dissent and a multiplicity of viewpoints as a means of allowing the best arguments to win out in society at large. We believe in allowing contary perspectives to be aired because those tests should strengthen or replace dominant arguments. History, the founders themselves might argue, is a work in progress and that work is best improved by considering all perspectives and attacking their faults or embracing their truths. You don't get that kind of marketplace when state education decides to shut the door on anything that a bunch of middle-aged Floridian dudes don't think is true.

We've long argued that education is necessary for a functioning democracy... I have to echo a question from a Florida high school teacher that appeared in Tampa Bay Online, "In a Democratic society, don't we want to teach kids how to question?" I think so.

It's impractical. Let me ask you a question... What caused the Great Depression? Now, try to answer that question honestly and completely without engaging in construction or interpretation and relying exclusively on facts. Remember, the fact set you use needs to be consistent with the criteria established by the state legislature, so go easy on any critiques of market economies. Good luck.

We now return to our regular programming...

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