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Florida outlaws revisionist history

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-zimmerman7jun07,0,5940045.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinions All history is revisionist A Florida law
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 11, 2006
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      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
      sugarcoated myths.

      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
      as well.

      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
      story win.

      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
      University Press.
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