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Revisiting Florida’s Ban on "Revisionism"

Note to Readers: I’m veering away from Russia for a bit to revisit Florida’s Education Omnibus Bill.

For the last few days I’ve been looking for more media coverage of Florida’s Education Omnibus Bill (House 7087) which, among many things, provides standards for teaching history in Florida public schools. I first addressed the issue a few days ago here. Upon further research and thanks to a column written by David Davisson posted on George Manson’s University’s History News Network, it seems that Jonathan Zimmerman’s opinion on the matter is not entirely accurate. Davisson notes that Zimmerman’s quote, which I also quoted, “The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth…. American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed,” does not appear in the final version of the law. (Davisson also does us a service by providing us a link to the law so we can read it for ourselves. Readers can find it here. For the legislative history of the bill you can go here for the Florida Senate and here for the House.) This above quote appeared in earlier versions of the law, but was deleted from the final version. The LA Times has also printed a correction to Zimmerman’s column on this matter. The paragraph in question comes from this draft of the law. The entire paragraph reads:

“(g) 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. The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth. 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.” (italics mine)

This paragraph was added by Florida State Senator Mike Fasano (R). The italicized sentence above was removed from the paragraph and reads in the final version like this:

“(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. 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.” (Section 1003.42, p. 22-3)

As both Davisson and Zimmerman note, all history is constructed. Historians gather evidence, interpret it and assemble it into a narrative. So to say that American history is factual is correct in the sense that something we call “facts” are used to write it. But to say that it is not constructed is a complete misunderstanding of a historian’s craft. People need to remember, history is not a science and historical narratives are not without interpretation. What one historians interprets in a text (and here I mean text in the broadest sense), may be interpreted differently by another. It is rather ironic that legislators, who spend hours arguing over the minutia of legal texts, can believe that texts, whether they are legal or otherwise, can stand above interpretation. All one needs to do is look at the legislative history of amendments and deletions of this law.

The fact that “postmodern” and “revisionist” are removed from the bill also doesn’t mean that they are not implied in the final version. To say that American history is not constructed is a veiled attack against those, like myself, who look at historical phenomenon as a result of contingency, power, ideology, culture, economics, politics etc, etc. To say that any history is based on incontrovertible facts suggests that facts stand outside of historical processes and matrices of power. To practice history the way Florida is suggesting is to essentially make history ahistorical. While people brandish “postmodernism,” “revisionist,” and “relativism” as political bludgeons, the truth of the matter is that those very people they accuse with such polemics are looking for, in my opinion, a deeper truth. It is not that so-called “postmodernists” say that there is no truth. They are saying that there is no truth without power, and mostly importantly these truths have very real material and ideological effects.

There is more in the law that suggests what I alluded to in my last piece with my reference to Louis Althusser and the role of education in maintaining hegemony of a particular class. In his seminal essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)” Althusser writes,

“[I]t is by an apprenticeship in a variety of know-how wrapped up in the massive inculcation of the ideology of the ruling class that the relations of production in a capitalist social formation, i.e. the relations of exploited to exploiters and exploiters to exploited, are largely reproduced. The mechanisms which produce this vital result for the capitalist regime are naturally covered up and concealed by a universally reigning ideology of the School, universally reigning because it is one of the essential forms of the ruling bourgeois ideology: an ideology which represents the school as a neutral environment purged of ideology . . .” (Lenin and Philosophy, 156)

This ideological concealment is found in sections of the law such as the following:

“(r) The nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.” (Section 1003.42, p. 23)

And,

“(t)(r) In order to encourage patriotism, the sacrifices that veterans have made in serving our country and protecting democratic values worldwide. Such instruction must occur on or before Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day. Members of the instructional staff are encouraged to use the assistance of local veterans when practicable.” (Section 1003.42, p. 24)

We shouldn’t pretend, whether you disagree with them or not, that these two sections are in any way ideologically neutral. To teach students the importance of “free enterprise” (they can’t even bring themselves to say capitalism) is to reproduce it as a foundational truth of American economy and society. It is to maintain the belief that there is no other “truth” but that one. It also functions to reproduce, as Althusser suggests, “the relations of exploited to exploiters and exploiters to exploited” since social relationship capital forms between those two groups is at the heart of “free enterprise.”

Such is also the case for the second quoted section. Not only does it sit well with the first since we are always taught that free enterprise and democracy have no contradiction, it serves to maintain, perpetuate and veil American foreign policy for the last century as an essentially selfless and virtuous enterprise committed to spreading “democratic values.” In addition, this ideological message is to be made real by employing those who have sacrificed for us and the unstated Other. American policy is not just for us; it is “worldwide.” As Althusser argues throughout his essay, the coordination of institutions (veterans organizations, the school), ritual (holidays mediated by the State like Memorial Day and Veterans Day) and ideology interpellates subjects making them into “concrete individuals” that embody the dominant ideology (for the discussion on interpellation see Althusser, p. 170-183).

There is more in this bill. Some of which is horrendous like “(3) Any student whose parent makes written request to the school principal shall be exempted from the teaching of reproductive health or any disease, including HIV/AIDS, its symptoms, development, and treatment” (Section 1003.42, p. 24) Sex education whatever, but HIV/AIDS!? The bill also places sexual abstinence under “comprehensive health: “(n)(m) Comprehensive health education that addresses concepts of community health; consumer health; environmental health; family life, including an awareness of the benefits of sexual abstinence as the expected standard and the consequences of teenage pregnancy” (Section 1003.42, p. 23). I guess students can’t get a written parental exemption to avoid being subjected to the tortures of abstinence rhetoric.

Some of the bill is good. It calls for including African-Americans, “Hispanics,” women’s contributions of the United States. It also includes a provision against Holocaust denial. And many other provisions stress community, charity, tolerance to religions, races, culture and ethnicities (though tolerance to different sexualities isn’t included). There is even a provision for teaching “kindness to animals.” Even with all this included in the history curriculum, we should be clear: they are present because they are part of or have been subsumed into the narrative of American history, a history where even with its paeans to tolerance, diversity, democracy is constructed to reproduce, not challenge the dominant ideology of the ruling class.

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