Monday, April 02, 2007

History is knowable, teachable and testable

Less than a year ago, the Florida legislature caused a sharp outcry by requiring that the U.S. history taught in the state's schools "shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed" and "shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable."

For example, there was this Op-Ed in the NYT that made the case that facts need to be interpreted. The folks at Common Dreams seemed to believe that the sky was falling and the end of "critical thinking" had arrived:

Florida's Fear of History: New Law Undermines Critical Thinking
by Robert Jensen

One way to measure the fears of people in power is by the intensity of their quest for certainty and control over knowledge.

By that standard, the members of the Florida Legislature marked themselves as the folks most terrified of history in the United States when last month they took bold action to become the first state to outlaw historical interpretation in public schools. In other words, Florida has officially replaced the study of history with the imposition of dogma and effectively outlawed critical thinking.

Instead of being terrified of history as the Common Dreamers claim, according to the Tampa Tribune the proponents of the law were simply perturbed by the "widespread lack of knowledge about U.S. government and history." So the Dreamers have it backwards: The lawmakers don't fear history. They want more of it.

I also found talk about meaning and significance in the Florida statute. This does not sound like a ban on critical thinking:

(b) The history, meaning, significance, and effect of the provisions of the Constitution of the United States and amendments thereto, with emphasis on each of the 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights and how the constitution provides the structure of our government.
There were also voices that derided such apocalyptic visions:

Construction Deconstructed
Facts and snippy academics.

By Matthew J. Franck
Academics are touchy people — especially when mere mortals presume to speak for themselves on matters where the professors claim expertise. So Cornell historian Mary Beth Norton lashed out, in the Sunday New York Times, against the Florida legislature for daring to make law on a subject squarely within its responsibility — educational standards in history — without apparently consulting the most enlightened members of the history professoriate, like, say, Mary Beth Norton. Oh dear, what trouble those poor legislators bought themselves. I’m sure they’re all slapping their foreheads and saying “Dang! Why didn’t we ask this Norton woman for advice!”

For Norton, the first cardinal sin the legislature could have avoided was its statement, in a revision of Florida education statutes, that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed.” Tsk, tsk. “Facts,” Norton says, “mean little or nothing without being interpreted — another word for ‘constructed.’ All historians know that facts never speak for themselves.” Somehow I think people who have made it their work to write laws didn’t need to be told about the importance of interpretation, of facts or anything else. So Norton’s preening and condescension are certainly misplaced here. Her assertion is a half-truth anyway. Facts are what they are. (The Second Continental Congress did vote for independence on July 2, 1776, to use an example of Norton’s. That speaks for itself whether anyone is listening or not.) “Meaning” is another matter, and facts rise and fall in our estimation with the uses we make of them. This much is true too — one might say it’s a fact — and if that’s all Norton wants to claim, she surely has no quarrel with the Florida legislature.
This controversy seems strange at first but becomes clearer when one considers the inroads postmodernism has made into the field of history. Matthew J. Franck continues:

But let’s do a little interpretation ourselves. It seems not to have occurred to Norton that when the Florida legislature decreed that in the state’s schools history shall be treated by teachers “as factual, not as constructed,” it was evidently taking sides in a debate in Norton’s own discipline. (I say “evidently” because I have no inside dope from Tallahassee — only the eyes of a reader of the statute.) As the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle observed a decade ago in The Killing of History, postmodern social theory has been invading the historical profession, reducing “the belief that there are ‘facts’ about history” to the status of “an ideological position” with no privileged status over the competing view that “history is nothing more than a form of literature.” Perhaps Norton, who declares that she “love[s] facts,” hasn’t heard of this crisis in her own discipline. But someone in Florida seems to have heard of it. And that “not as constructed” language in the new state law was surely aimed at such fashions of postmodernism, with the intent of keeping the state’s history teachers from donning those new clothes.
In a review of Keith Windschuttle's book in The New Criterion, Roger Kimball chronicles the strange things that have been happening to the study of history. At bottom, it is an abandonment of the commitment to truth:

One depressing sign of this situation is the absolute horror with which the idea of “objective truth” is regarded in chic academic circles today. Another is the widespread tendency to downgrade facts to matters of opinion—a tendency that follows naturally from the rejection of objective truth. This shows itself in the amazingly prevalent assumption that truth is “relative,” i.e., that the truth of what is said depends crucially upon the interests, prejudices, even the sex or ethnic origin of the speaker rather than—well, than the truth or falsity of what the speaker says. The basic idea is that truth is somehow invented rather than discovered. Typical of this position is the feminist complaint about “male-centered” epistemologies that make false claims to universality (another word that inspires panic) or objectivity.
So I say, let's first get a factual foundation in history. Then interpretation can follow. Interpretation without a factual foundation is just empty palaver.

1 comment:

Larry Strauss said...

Remove the politics from this dispute and it might more easily be resolved.

Does one need to label things as objective fact if one has accurate sources to which one can attribute claims?

I have witnessed a kind of perceptual schizophrenia among high school students. Having believed everything they read and were told about history in school they become skepitcal and then begin to disbelieve everything they read or are told.

Both of these extremes -- blind faith and blind disbelief -- are, of course, forms of ignorance.

Teach students historical claims and who made them and teach them how to evaluate the validity of those claims.

Of course, then we might have an informed and insightful electorate.

Do lawmakers in Florida or anywhere else really want that?