Der Amerikaner Reich..?
Achtung! The book burnings will commence shortly...
Constraining History/Controlling Knowledge
By Robert Jensen
August 14, 2006
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.
Although U.S. students are typically taught a sanitized version of history
in which the inherent superiority and benevolence of the United States is
rarely challenged, the social and political changes unleashed in the 1960s
have opened up some space for a more honest accounting of our past. But even
these few small steps taken by some teachers toward collective critical
self-reflection are too much for many Americans to bear.
So, as part of an education bill signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida
has declared that "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as
constructed." That factual history, the law states, shall be viewed as
"knowable, teachable and testable."
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
The fundamental fallacy of the law is in the underlying assumption that
"factual" and "constructed" are mutually exclusive in the study of history.
There certainly are many facts about history that are widely, and sometimes
even unanimously, agreed upon. But how we arrange those facts into a
narrative to describe and explain history is clearly a construction, an
interpretation. That's the task of historians -- to assess factual
assertions about the past, weave them together in a coherent narrative, and
construct an explanation of how and why things happened.
For example, it's a fact that Europeans began coming in significant numbers
to North America in the 17th century. Were they peaceful settlers or
aggressive invaders? That's interpretation, a construction of the facts into
a narrative with an argument for one particular way to understand those
It's also a fact that once those Europeans came, the indigenous people died
in large numbers. Was that an act of genocide? Whatever one's answer, it
will be an interpretation, a construction of the facts to support or reject
In contemporary history, has U.S. intervention in the Middle East been aimed
at supporting democracy or controlling the region's crucial energy
resources? Would anyone in a free society want students to be taught that
there is only one way to construct an answer to that question?
Speaking of contemporary history, what about the fact that before the 2000
presidential election, Florida's Republican secretary of state removed
57,700 names from the voter rolls, supposedly because they were convicted
felons and not eligible to vote. It's a fact that at least 90 percent were
not criminals -- but were African American. It's a fact that black people
vote overwhelmingly Democratic. What conclusion will historians construct
from those facts about how and why that
In other words, history is always constructed, no matter how much Florida's
elected representatives might resist the notion. The real question is: How
effectively can one defend one's construction? If Florida legislators felt
the need to write a law to eliminate the possibility of that question even
being asked, perhaps it says something about their faith in their own view
and ability to defend it.
One of the bedrock claims of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment
-- two movements that, to date, have not been repealed by the Florida
Legislature -- is that no interpretation or theory is beyond challenge. The
evidence and logic on which all knowledge claims are based must be
transparent, open to examination. We must be able to understand and critique
the basis for any particular construction of knowledge, which requires that
we understand how knowledge is constructed.
Except in Florida.
But as tempting as it is to ridicule, we should not spend too much time
poking fun at this one state, because the law represents a yearning one can
find across the United States. Americans look out at a wider world in which
more and more people reject the idea of the United States as always right,
always better, always moral. As the gap between how Americans see themselves
and how the world sees us grows, the instinct for many is to eliminate
intellectual challenges at home: "We can't control what the rest of the
world thinks, but we can make sure our kids aren't exposed to such
The irony is that such a law is precisely what one would expect in a
totalitarian society, where governments claim the right to declare certain
things to be true, no matter what the debates over evidence and
interpretation. The preferred adjective in the United States for this is
"Stalinist," a system to which U.S. policymakers were opposed during the
Cold War. At least, that's what I learned in history class.
People assume that these kinds of buffoonish actions are rooted in the
arrogance and ignorance of Americans, and there certainly are excesses of
both in the United States.
But the Florida law -- and the more widespread political mindset it reflects
-- also has its roots in fear. A track record of relatively successful
domination around the world seems to have produced in Americans a fear of
any lessening of that dominance. Although U.S. military power is
unparalleled in world history, we can't completely dictate the shape of the
world or the course of events. Rather than examining the complexity of the
world and expanding the scope of one's inquiry, the instinct of some is to
narrow the inquiry and assert as much control as possible to avoid difficult
and potentially painful challenges to orthodoxy.
Is history "knowable, teachable and testable"? Certainly people can work
hard to know -- to develop interpretations of processes and events in
history and to understand competing interpretations. We can teach about
those views. And students can be tested on their understanding of
conflicting constructions of history.
But the real test is whether Americans can come to terms with not only the
grand triumphs but also the profound failures of our history. At stake in
that test is not just a grade in a class, but our collective future.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin
and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center
http://thirdcoastactivist.org/. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness:
Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle
to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books). He can be reached at
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