A Student of History

July 12, 2006

History defies a just-the-facts approach…

Filed under: The Academy,What is History? — John Maass @ 11:54 pm


Historian Mary Beth Norton has an opinion column that was in the NYT and carried by a number of other papers, including the Raleigh News & Observer.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

As a historian, I love facts. I especially love facts about early America, the subject I have researched, taught and written about for more than 40 years. The Florida Legislature would seem to share my enthusiasm. An education law it recently enacted insists, “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed” and “shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable.” The statute places particular importance on the facts of the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by the Second Continental Congress two days after its vote for independence on July 2, 1776. Yet the wording of the law befuddles me. Facts mean little or nothing without being interpreted — another word for “constructed.” All historians know that facts never speak for themselves.

Norton is right to question Florida’s law, in that most of history is what we have constructed, or at least, what some have constructed and others believe.  This is what the Whig interpretation of history was about for years.  Or how we set up conflicts and wars as set pieces, or presidential elections as being man vs. man, and not about issues, tensions, and movements.  One need read only To Rule the Waves, by Arthur Herman, to have an example of how a historian can distort huge historical events into “constructs” of one man vs. one man, or to overemphasize certain historical forces rather than examine and engage with the whole picture. 

Norton concludes that “Under the guise of returning to a factual teaching of history in the state’s schools, Florida’s legislators have mandated an ahistorical construction that paradoxically distorts the very facts they purport to revere.”  However, Matthew Franck takes Norton to task for her attack on Florida’s attempts to “get to the facts” approach in a National Review article.  He writes that “Norton actually proves the Floridians’ point, and proves herself quite silly, by working so hard to show that certain interpretations of American history are better or more reasonable or more true to the facts than others. Not that her interpretation is better. But in her clear conviction that an argument can persuade someone to adopt one “construction” of history as better or truer (or even just more useful) than another, Norton shows just the kind of respect for facts that too many of her colleagues have abandoned and that the Florida legislature is concerned to preserve.”  Leave it to the NR to keep its eyes on what the academy is doing, although this effort goes too far too often….

For other articles on the Florida issue with history teaching, click here and here.


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