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Fw: [AgnosticsRefuge] New FL Law Undermines Critical Thinking

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  • David Kristj´┐Żn Simpson
    ... From: HumanCarol To: atheists-talk@yahoogroups.com ; agnosticsrefuge@yahoogroups.com Sent: Wed 19 July 2006 16:10 Subject: [AgnosticsRefuge] New FL Law
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2006
      ----- Original Message -----
      From: HumanCarol
      To: atheists-talk@yahoogroups.com ; agnosticsrefuge@yahoogroups.com
      Sent: Wed 19 July 2006 16:10
      Subject: [AgnosticsRefuge] New FL Law Undermines Critical Thinking


      Published on Monday, July 17, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
      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.

      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 US
      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.

      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 facts.

      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 that conclusion.

      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 happened?

      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 nonsense."

      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

      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). Email to: rjensen@....


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