The views expressed in this blog post are my own and do not represent the National Council for History Education, with which I am currently serving as a member of the board of directors.
We could have seen this coming from a mile away. In fact, an argument could be made that this is exactly what lawmakers intended with new legislation banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, and other aspects of how the history of slavery and white supremacy are taught. Last week Osceoloa County canceled a planned professional development workshop for its educators, led by historian J. Michael Butler, who teaches at Flagler College. Butler…
planned three presentations, covering historic milestones like the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the March on Washington, the integration of the University of Mississippi, and the Montgomery bus boycott. Seminar attendees would then work with a curriculum specialist to translate that history into grade-appropriate lesson plans and classroom resources.
The workshop was canceled after new legislation was passed in Florida that follows a number of other Republican controlled state legislators seeking to control the teaching of American history. It is not difficult to understand why the district canceled this program. The legislation is so vague that it places school administrators in a position where it is better to be safe than sorry.
According to NCHE executive director Grace Leatherman, district officials were particularly concerned about the seminar’s use of primary source materials, including decades-old political cartoons about the Great Migration and Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision that established segregation’s “separate but equal” doctrine, as well as images of contemporary civil rights protests like Colin Kaepernick kneeling on a football field.
The problem is that when you dig into the history of the Great Migration and landmark cases like Plessy you are forced to confront the extent to which racism and white supremacy helped to maintain a racial hierarchy. Even though Critical Race Theory isn’t taught in public schools it is one tool among many that helps us to better understand this history.
Notice that the concern here was not a secondary source like an essay from the 1619 Project, but primary sources, the very evidence that forms the foundation for any historical interpretation. It makes sense when you look at the legislation itself:
The history of the United States, including the period of discovery, early colonies, the War of Independence, the Civil War, the expansion of the United States to include its present boundaries, the word wars, and the civil rights movement to the present. American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence. (my emphasis)
Let’s set aside the fact that this statement has nothing to do with the study of history or history education. It is nothing more than an order from above. It renders primary sources like those referenced above as a threat to the idea that history is ‘not constructed’ or interpreted. The only primary source that apparently matters is the Declaration of Independence.
Of course, the sad thing is that these teachers, who voluntarily attend these workshops, have lost an opportunity to learn from an incredibly talented historian and educator.
I got to know Professor Butler two years ago as a result of an invitation to speak at Flagler College about my latest book. In addition to speaking I was invited to attend two of his classes. Professor Butler is an excellent teacher and has devoted much of his career to organizing workshops for history educators and others. I highly recommend his book, Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980.
This is the the result of the fear mongering and lies coming almost entirely from Republican lawmakers. They have managed to turn history teachers into enemies of the state. We are somehow to believe that while most history teachers don’t know enough history, they know enough to encourage white students to feel personally responsible for the racism of the past and to hate themselves for it.
We will see more stories like this in the coming years. Teachers will continue to retire in large numbers and it will be increasingly difficult to fill their shoes. I certainly can’t blame anyone who chooses not to teach history in this current environment.