Florida shamefully limits how teachers discuss US history
“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” must have been the adage running through the minds of members of Florida’s State Board of Education last week as they rubber-stamped a gag order on teachers that outlaws mention of some historic views of US racial issues.
In fact, the Board of Education toughened the gag order proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran as it outlawed mention of critical race theory in a nation that was beset by slavery at its founding, a Civil War fought over a system of slavery, lynchings, segregation and racial strife – as though racial inequities have just been a minor side issue.
The new state order provides a powerful impetus to parents to flee Florida’s public school systems, which are required to follow the gag order on teachers and teaching. Charter and private schools face no such restriction and teachers are free to tell all sides of American history – the good, of which there truly is a vast amount, but also the bad and the ugly, which certainly has included racial issues from day one of this nation.
Can you imagine the immediate difficulties for corporate recruiters trying to bring businesses and investment into Florida? They’re going to have to sell a public school system that is under state order not to talk about the ugly racial elephant in the room.
It’s like trying to sell Florida’s climate to incoming residents and companies while dancing around sea level rise and hurricanes and a tiny bit of humidity and rain in the summer. At least state government hasn’t banned mention of those climatic issues – yet.
The measure that seven members of the State Board of Education – all appointed by Republicans Gov. DeSantis and his predecessor, now-Sen. Rick Scott – approved last week said teachers may not “share their personal views or attempt to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view that is inconsistent” with state standards. Presumably, whatever Gov. DeSantis says is American history is OK to shove down students’ throats.
The new rules also say:
“Instruction on the required topics must be factual and objective, and may not suppress or distort significant historical events, such as the Holocaust, slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and the contribution of women, African American and Hispanic people to our country… Examples of theories that distort historical events and are inconsistent with the State Board approved standards include the denial of or minimization of the Holocaust, and the teaching of Critical Race Theory, meaning the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal system in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons. Instruction may not utilize materials from the 1619 Project [a New York Times study of racism in US history] and may not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”
This might well be the first state regulation ever to bar discussion of a newspaper report. Of course, a century ago Tennessee barred teaching about evolution because it wasn’t based on the so-called universal principles stated in the Bible, and we know how that law turned out for the image of the state.
As we noted a few weeks ago, much as you and I might like the principles of the Declaration of Independence to be universal, look at all the nations around the globe that reject those principles. We wish they were universal, but saying that they are universal doesn’t make it so.
And, as we also pointed out, “universal” when the Declaration of Independence was written meant white, educated, adult male landowners. The declaration in 1776 was a significant advance and an aspiration, but at the time women, Blacks and Native Americans were not included in all of its provisions, a shameful piece of reality that our educational system should not gloss over.
“Students deserve the best education we can provide, and that means giving them a true picture of their world and our shared history as Americans. Hiding facts doesn’t change them,” Andrew Spar, president of Florida’s teachers union, observed about the state’s measure, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
“Let teachers teach,” Ben Frazier with the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville chanted to the board before advocates were cleared from the room prior to last week’s vote, according to Florida Phoenix.
But the governor told the state board via video before the vote that he does not want students to hear “narratives that are not grounded in facts” to prevent students from learning a “false history” where they “look back and denigrate the Founding Fathers, denigrate the American Revolution.”
A reminder: many of our founding fathers held slaves. Just don’t mention it, Florida teachers.
We are not talking here about teaching 6-year-olds. We’re talking about teaching US history in a classroom where some students may be old enough to vote or go to war, but the state says they aren’t old enough to hear anything but a sanitized history where some views cannot be expressed. Shameful.
“We need to be educating people, not trying to indoctrinate them with ideology,” the governor told the state board, according to the News Service of Florida.
We agree with that statement by Mr. DeSantis – so why is he trying to indoctrinate students with ideology and not allowing teachers to educate them to think about all sides of the complex issues with which US history is filled?
American history is not just “we are the good guys.” That oversimplified view misses out on both nuances in history and injustices.
How, for example, should history treat the uprooting and confinement of Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II? It’s not an easy or comfortable discussion, but a necessary one that also revolves around race and ethnicity. There are many examples. What is the truth and fairness of those issues in the DeSantis system of education?
We can’t wait to see how Florida polices teachers to follow an official line of thought as handed down from Tallahassee. The governor and Mr. Corcoran say they will follow the Whack-a-Mole system of slapping down teacher after teacher that says the wrong things – wrong in the state’s very limited views of history. Will they use a system of students reporting their teachers to Thought Police for what was said in class?
That plan could result in national publicity for Florida in the same way that Tennessee was the national laughing stock after the 1925 trial on the teaching of evolution. It won’t be any prettier than the legislation itself.
And the Thought Police aren’t done. The state board could vote as early as July 14 on a DeSantis rewrite of civics standards covering what students learn from kindergarten through high school so that those lessons focus on, in his words, “the success of the United States.” Maybe in those classes we win the Vietnam War.
When law limits knowledge, our society loses.