Florida Bans “Revisionist History”

Looks like we no longer have to worry about those revisionist historians corrupting the minds of the young in Florida.  From the Los Angeles Times article:

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 constructed."

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.

Continue reading if you have the stamina (Hat-tip to Cliopatra).  I wonder what the commission charged with judging what counts as factual or revisionist will look like?  This is laughable, but disturbing.

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13 thoughts on “Florida Bans “Revisionist History”

  1. John Maass

    It is interesting how the folks in FL have somehow conflated “revisionism” with “postmodernism.” Or at least they have lumped them together here. I suppose it would not be a bad thing to say that we need not teach high schoolers what the postmodern view is on US history, but what is alos going on here is making revisionism a slur. All history when done correctly is revisionist if it revises what we know or teaches us something new which in turn revises the body of knowledge as well. What I would like to see is what textbooks they adopt–do the authors consider themselves revisionists??

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  2. Kevin Levin

    You make a good point John. “Revisionism” is being conflated with “postmodernism” which implies a connection with relativism. I guess the distinction is between using history as a way to maintain a certain a community that is wrapped around a specific interpretation of the nation’s past and history as a continual process of interpretation and re-interpretation.

    Part of the problem is that historians have neglected the debate and have allowed English Departments the opportunity to define what we mean by “text,” “interpretation,” “objectivity,” etc.

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  3. Anonymous

    I think the first thing to note about postmodernism and the study of history, is that history is meaningless in postmodernism. The only real sort of codification of what the word “postmodernism” means is Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” In his typology, one of the hallmarks of postmodernism is a lack of historical consciousness (which is related to the nature of late-stage capitalist consumption). Jameson in this essay does talk about how this sort of assertion is problematic, because the emergence of postmodernism is tied to the historic moment of late-stage capitalism (and the contingent patterns of consumption that lead to the ideological shifts that constitue postmodernism). The study of history, in a sense, is a denial of postmodernism because the very act of doing so is an assertion that there is something meaningful in history (unless you do it simply for an act of consumption and for entertainment’s sake…which I think wraps back around to an earlier post about tactical level studies that ignore everything except how the 8th Virginia was a foot and a half to the left of where it was told to be).

    Postmodernism can best be understood as a sort of theoretical ideal state, like the last stage of communism, pure capitalism or democracy. These states pretty much exist for the sake of argumentation, or to shed light on current experience. In essence, postmodernism is pure relativism. There is no truth, so no one viewpoint is any more worthwhile than another.

    I think that this sort of relativism that springs from postmodernism (or created it) does hold great importance for the study of history. Simple revisionism is not enough. Revisionism holds that there is a true narrative, and by revising our interpretations, we get closer to that truth. In many cases, those engaged in this process ignore the cultural factors that shape their interpretation of the past (which is where postmodern relativism comes in). Revisionism changes the interpretation of the past to suit the present without acknowledging that this is the case. Acknowledging the cultural factors that shape interpretation makes our version of history less authoratative, but it opens up creative avenues of investigation.

    In the words of a great teacher, “facts don’t speak for themselves.” A fact only matters if meaning is given to it. And a meaning is given by a person who does not exist in a vacuum. So the meaning of a fact, that is, its truth, is related to a specific time and instance. To deny this is absurd.

    Also, postmodernism is not used very much anymore seriously by the academia (even in English). Techniques of analysis arising from conceptions of how postmodernity might function (such as the study of culture and constructions of identity) are employed, but there is very little serious talk of “postmodernity.” Postmodernity, rather, is used in instances like Jeb Bush used it. It functions as a short hand for conservative Christians. Instead of seriously engaging with what the term might mean, they use it as a negative term to substitute for “anyone who does not agree with what I am saying.” Instead of advancing an argument for why postmodernism or relativism or revisionism is bad, these groups simply say “you don’t agree with my cult, so you are wrong.” The move to control the teaching of history is a way of advancing their agenda now (in itself an acknowledgment of how historical truth is relative, because they are bending it to their current agenda).

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  4. Kevin Levin

    Without getting into a discussion about the assumptions that go into various theories of postmodernism, let me say that your overview gets at the problem that I should have mentioned in my last comment. First, let me say that I have no problem with broad philosophical questions of objectivity and interpretation. I don’t even mind talking about the speculative interpretations of Hegel and Spengler. That said, it is important to acknowledge the gap that separates the interests of the philosopher and those of the historian. Regardless of Jameson, Foucault, or Heidegger, historians still need to get into the archives and dig up documents, etc. We can debate the broad questions, but this does not necessarily impinge on more local concerns. Notice that the positivist philosophers of the 1930′s and 40′s argued for a normative conclusion about how historical analysis should proceed.

    The other problem is that historians are notoriously bad at trying to head off the postmodernist challenge. I am much more interested in philosophical questions that connect more closely to the actual concerns of historians. How do historical interpretations evolve? What is the difference between interpretations that compete rather than supplement one another? Is there an interpretation of historical objectivity that is worth defending?

    Finally, we should remind ourselves that the postmodernist agenda is nothing more than an offshoot of Plato’s discussion in the _Protagoras_. I am not trying to dismiss postmodernist theory, but to remind us that its assumptions have a very long history.

    Thanks for writing such a thoughful response.

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  5. Anonymous

    Points well taken, Kevin. I do think though that while Postmodernism surely has its antecedents, and the concerns it addresses are timeless, it is specific in regards to capitalism. The main thing I’ve taken away from a study of postmodernism is how unspoke assumptions about production and consumption contribute to certain cultural factors. In the sense, postmodernism eats its own tail. It is historical analysis (based off of Marxist arguments) that argues that historical analysis is meaningless. I suppose this another one of those instances where one must climb the ladder before you are able to throw it away. I must also add, that rooting postmodernism in a specific historic stage with specific historic factors is the only way to make it coherent or sensible at all. Otherwise, you can identify the “postmodern” anywhere in history (see Lockridge’s work on the diary of William Byrd II of Westover). So while I agree that what postmodernism is addressing has a long history, I am not sure that I agree that all of its assumptions have a long history. But then again, all of this of course hinges on the idea that patterns of capitalism and consumption related to culture in some fashion, and that culture matters.

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  6. Kevin Levin

    I have to admit that I’ve not spent nearly enough time trying to better understand the more specific points that you make in re: to the connection between postmodern theory and capitalism. In the end one must make a choice; I can spend time thinking about what history is or I can actually do it. I tend to see the professionalization of history as an extension of our more basic need to understand ourselves in a broader temporal context. When you say that postmodernism “is historical analysis” the red light goes off for me. Are postmodernists thinking critically about what historians actually do or have they taken one step further back to ask what certain concepts mean? If the latter – which I assume is true – than I tend to lose interest fast.

    A great example of a philosopher who has done some excellent work in philosophy of history is my graduate advisor at the Univ. of Maryland, Raymond Martin who published _The Past Within Us: An Empirical Approach to Philosophy of History_ (Princeton University Press, 1989). Martin begins by acknowledging that there are no grand conceptual theories of history. You start by looking at actual case studies and base your analysis on what is the case rather than from one’s armchair. This does not mean that normative judgments are lost, but that those judgments must be based on a critical analysis of how interpretations evolve over time. I applied this methodology in my M.A. thesis at Maryland by looking closely at how debates over the cause of the American Revolution have evolved. I looked specifically at how historians judged competing as opposed to supplementary explanations.

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  7. Anonymous

    Well, “postmodernism is historical analysis” is a little bit of overstatement on my part. It is historical analysis in a way that Marxism is similar to historical analysis. While the broad concept of a Marxist analysis of History may turn you off, the same sort of methods and ways of looking at texts (and articulations of culture within them, etc) are applicable to a certain extent with more narrowly focused historical scholarship. I also admit that I have probably been charitable to postmodernism as a whole here. As I said, postmodernism as a concept was really in vogue in the late 1980s and 1990s. I get the feeling that since then it has been discarded, but the useful influences it has had on cultural studies linger.

    My reading of postmodernism is really focused on how Jameson expressed the concept in the essay I referred to (and granted, this is my interpretation of it, and perhaps also my way of making it into something viable). Otherwise, you get this nebulous jumble of junk that is a stand in for “nothing matters and everything is relative.” Most people talking about postmodernism don’t bother to define the term, and use it to mystify those who are reading the work. The same goes with “modernism” or “modernity.” Every time you see these words you have to figure out what exactly they mean.

    I’ll have to take a look at Martin’s book.

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  8. Stryker

    This is probably the third or fourth post I’ve read that is so strongly against the idea of what FLA is trying to do. I can agree that the legislation is poorly written.
    However, the strong attacks made on it appear as if Historians do not agree that there is correct history to be taught. Even after reading these posts, I don’t understand why so many career historians have such a strong problem with it. I feel like I’m being told “well, if you don’t understand, I can’t explain it to you.”
    What do you honestly think the legislators are trying to accomplish/prevent? Do you have a better way of doing so? How would you answer the charge that ‘liberal teachers are trying to destroy our heritage by teaching a “new and different” history’?

    As a friend of mine once said “just a question.”

    –an engineer

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  9. Kevin Levin

    Thanks for the question. Academic historians are not in the business of promoting “correct history” or any preferred view. The historians job is to collect data/facts and do their best in interpreting those facts. Constant revision and the challenging of specific interpretations is what gives the discipline its life. The notion that American history can be reduced to a simple set of facts renders the teaching of any history otiose. As a teacher I do my best to give my students the analytical tools which allows them to think for themselves. My job is not to push any preferred view of American history – though I do have very strong views which I make it a point to share with my students.

    The problem as I see it is that the general public, including legislators views academic historians as a bunch of liberal activists in the classrooms. The idea that history involves revision is evidence of an adherence to some kind of postmodern view. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    I believe that the state legislators should stay as far away from the classroom as possible. My guess is that few of them understand the complexity of American history and more importantly their interests are probably not primarily focused on the veracity of historical claims.

    Thanks for the question.

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  10. Stryker

    Thank you for your thoughtful response.

    I can very well understand the desire to incorporate standards into education, especially for minimums (I’m an engineer, what do you expect ;-) ). The problem I see with this legislation in particular is that it is exclusionary. I have no problem with “revisionist” history being taught, as long as it is taught along with traditional history. Where I would disagree with you is in the definition of revisionist. Revising a theory or explanation to fit the facts is one thing, but “revisionists” (as I understand them) are looking for facts in order to support changing the existing theories. That is, the new theory is developed, and facts are “found” that support it.
    As far as “The notion that American history can be reduced to a simple set of facts renders the teaching of any history otiose.” I definitely understand where you are coming from, but I think you’d agree that before interpretation must come a certain level of factual understanding. I hope you’d also agree that there are certain historical facts that holders of a HS degree can be expected to know.
    While I agree that state legislatures should have more on their mind than this, I can understand the fear that more students know what Sally Hemmings is famous for than James Polk. While interpreting the meaning of these two individuals on the landscape of US history if valuable and exciting, very few of my HS classmates could give any meaningful interpretation because the introduction of facts took up the class time.
    I would like to conclude by saying I think we agree on more than we disagree, but I am surprised by a total lack of empathy for the legislature’s desire. Of course maybe I empathize with idiots too easily ;-)

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  11. Kevin Levin

    I guess I need to know what I am supposed to empathize with. Who are these dangerous revisionist historians that you speak of? Are they really the liberal historians of our colleges and universities? If this is the problem than it is necessary to provide specific examples of where their interpretations are mistaken. I’ve dealt with this in my choice of a AP History textbook this past year. I decided to use Eric Foner’s survey and as you may know he was cited by Tony Horowitz as one of the 101 dangerous professors. I am not intererested in labels or accusations; provide the examples of where someone is mistaken and you’ve got yourself a debate. Stick with generalizations, accusations, and fear-mongering and you’ve got yourself a “debate” ala Ann Coulter style. No thank you. I am not suggesting that this is where you are coming from only that this seems to me to be the background for this nonsense.

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  12. Stryker,

    Let’s see if this saves.

    First, I don’t know much about the “101 most dangerous…” book. I HAVE discarded it out of hand, as I can’t imagine anyone can know 10 or 20 thousand professors in multiple fields well enough to know which 100 are most “dangerous.” Expand that out to all Americans and I think my point is well made.
    That said, I am not about to give you anything like a comprehensive list of Dangerous professors. While I would like to just leave it at as simple admonishment to be careful, I will provide some examples.
    What you are supposed to empathize with is the desire of parents (that’s what many legislators are) to have their children taught the same facts and history that they were.
    My admonishment (not to you individually, as I doubt you need it), therefore, would be to be hesitant to teach any new and unproven theories. Be doubly hesitant to teach new theories that counter existing understandings. Re-double the hesitancy if the new theory has meaningful political ramifications.
    There are many examples of unproven history out there, especially within the blog sphere. Two history books in the last 3 years I’d put in this category are 1491, and 1421. Taken with Drs. Bellasailles and Churchill, there is a problem with popular history books being initially accepted even though they are unproven.
    That said, the biggest problem I (and many other conservatives) have is forcing students to learn as fact that which is merely theory, at the expense of learning “the basics.” Even if there was complete agreement of who was not accepted, some young historian will try to make a splash by writing something provocative. It may or may not be true. What is important is the verification of that truth before teaching it. I guess I’d say that “verified history” is not “Revisionist” history.

    Again, thank you for this discussion, I am finding both informative and enjoyable.

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  13. Kevin Levin

    I appreciate your interest in this issue, but I still don’t understand what the worry is. First, let me say in reference to your hope that children today learn what was taught to their parents, that this would be disastrous in regards to race and slavery. Come to think of it they would be lucky to learn anything at all about these issues.

    What theories are you so concerned about? And why are theories viewed as dangerous a priori? In my classes I introduce my students to cultural, social, gender, political, and economic theories and we apply them to the study of the American past. A well constructed theory can prove to be extremely helpful in trying to better understanding an historical event. And if for any reason it threatens our preferred “lily white” story so be it. My job is not to teach a patriotic or any other preferred narrative. As I stated in my last response, my job is to teach my students how to think.

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