Florida outlaws revisionist history
All history is 'revisionist'
A Florida law banning relativism in classes ignores
reality and 75 years of academic tradition.
By Jonathan Zimmerman
June 7, 2006
JUST WHEN YOU thought it was safe to study American
history again the revisionists are back!
You know, those relativists who distort or simply
fabricate the past to make it fit their present-day
biases. For instance, shortly after the U.S. invaded
Iraq in 2003, President Bush attacked "revisionist
historians" who questioned his justifications for
using force against Saddam Hussein. He did it again on
Veterans Day in 2005. "It is deeply irresponsible," he
declared, "to rewrite the history of how the war
And just last week, in an unprecedented move, the
president's brother approved a law barring revisionist
history in Florida public schools. "The history of the
United States shall be taught as genuine history and
shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist
viewpoints of relative truth," declares Florida's
Education Omnibus Bill, signed by Gov. Jeb Bush.
"American history shall be viewed as factual, not as
Ironically, the Florida law is itself revisionist
history. Once upon a time, it theorizes, history
especially about the founding of the country was
based on facts. But sometime during the 1960s, all
that changed. American historians supposedly started
embracing newfangled theories of moral relativism and
French postmodernism, abandoning their traditional
quest for facts, truth and certainty.
The result was a flurry of new interpretations,
casting doubt on the entire past as we had previously
understood it. Because one theory was as good as
another, then nothing could be true or false. God,
nation, family and school: It was all up for grabs.
There's just one problem with this
history-of-our-history: It's wrong.
Hardly a brainchild of the flower-power '60s, the
concept of historical interpretation has been at the
heart of our profession from the 1920s onward. Before
that time, to be sure, some historians believed that
they could render a purely factual and objective
account of the past. But most of them had given up on
what historian Charles Beard called the "noble dream"
by the interwar period, when scholars came to realize
that the very selection of facts was an act of
That's why Cornell's Carl Becker chose the title
"Everyman His Own Historian" for his 1931 address to
the American Historical Assn., probably the most
famous short piece of writing in our profession. In
it, Becker explained why "Everyman" that is, the
average layperson inevitably interpreted the facts
of his or her own life, remembering certain elements
and forgetting (or distorting) others.
For instance, try to recount everything you did
yesterday. Not just a few things, like going to work
or eating dinner or reading the newspaper, but
everything. You can't. Even if you kept a diary and
recorded what you did each minute, you would
inevitably omit some detail: a sound in your ear, a
twitch in your nose, a passing glance of your eyes. A
24-hour video camera might pick up these physical
actions, but it could never record your thoughts.
So when somebody asks what you did yesterday, you
select a certain few facts about your day and spin a
story around them.
As do professional historians. They may draw on a
wider array of facts and theories but, just like
"Everyman," they choose certain data points and omit
others, as well they must.
Becker was an optimist. Although historians could
never determine the capital-T "Truth," he wrote, they
could get progressively closer to it by asking new
questions, collecting new facts and constructing new
Nevertheless, he concluded his 1931 address on a
pessimistic note: Unless the profession engaged lay
readers unless, that is, we taught the public about
what we actually do Americans would reject history
itself, taking comfort in banal pieties and
And surely one of the biggest myths of all is that
history is simply about "facts." This year marks the
75th anniversary of Becker's famous speech, yet
Americans appear no nearer to understanding that all
pasts are "constructed," that all facts require
interpretation and that all history is "revisionist"
Demagogic politicians are certainly at fault for this
situation, but historians bear a good deal of blame
too. Unlike Becker's generation of scholars, who
worked hard to cultivate a lay readership, most of us
write only for each other. Is it any wonder that the
public has no idea about how we go about choosing
topics, identifying sources and arriving at
"It should be a relief to us to renounce omniscience,"
Becker wrote 75 years ago, "to recognize that every
generation, our own included, will, must inevitably,
understand the past and anticipate the future in the
light of its own restricted experience."
Yet this recognition also comes with a responsibility,
which most historians have, unfortunately, renounced
If more of us wrote for the people instead of simply
about them, perhaps they would turn a deaf ear to
specious charges of "revisionism," "constructivism"
and the like. People construct their own stories every
day, just like we historians do. And may the best
JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN teaches history and education at
New York University. He is the author of "Innocents
Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century,"
which will be published in the fall by Harvard