Florida Law Stirs Debate over Teaching History

In Florida, educators disagree over a new state law on how history is taught. Some fear an emphasis on teaching "just the facts" will discourage discussions of controversial events.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Just the facts. That's what Florida says history teachers should be providing students. A new education bill has stirred up historians by asserting that history, quote, shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed. That notion runs counter to a basic premise of history education, that history is an interpretation of events that changes over time. Even so, NPR's Greg Allen reports some Florida history teachers actually like the new law.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Elsewhere kids are still at the pool or otherwise enjoying the waning days of summer vacation. But here in Naples, Florida the 11th graders in Bard Keeler's American History class are working hard to get their brains back into gear.

Mr. BARD KEELER (Teacher, American History): There's one government that's sort of like the first Constitution. You remember this from 8th grade? I know it was a long time ago. But you know...

ALLEN: This is only the second history class of the new school year, and Keeler is reviewing the events that led up to the Declaration of Independence.

Mr. KEELER: Does it say that?

Unidentified Woman: Articles of Confederation.

Mr. KEELER: Articles of Confederation. Right?

ALLEN: Outside the classroom, Keeler talks about a common concern among history teachers: the declining amount of time and resources school districts and students devote to the study of history. Keeler says students, like these 11th graders, no less history today than when he began teaching 12 years ago.

Mr. KEELER: What we're doing here in a nutshell should be a quick review of some other things. But I sense that there was more than a little learning going on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEELER: You know, which is fairly typical.

ALLEN: Mike Fasano was a state Senator from New Port Richey, Florida, just north of Tampa. After visiting some schools he learned that students often didn't know the name of their town's mayor, the name of the state's lieutenant governor, or even the difference between the Florida legislature and the U.S. Congress.

To help remedy that, Fasano proposed a bill recently signed into law that requires Florida schools to teach the history of the United States from the period of discovery to the present. Nothing controversial about that. The clause that alarmed historians was the one that seemed to suggest that any discussions of controversial events that were open to different interpretations would be off-limits.

Fasano says not so, that he's only trying to raise the profile of history in the schools and to state clearly that it's a subject on which students should be tested. But he says he's surprised historians question his emphasis on making sure students know the dates, places and names important to U.S. history.

State Senator MIKE FASANO (Republican, Florida): I think it's important that young people today, as they are learning, know exactly the facts of how our country was created and the development of our country.

Mr. THERON TRIMBLE (Council for the Social Studies): The idea that history isn't interpreted but is factual, that's just totally not realistic.

ALLEN: Theron Trimble is executive director of Florida's Council for the Social Studies. He's suspicious of any efforts by the state legislature to dictate curricula. He recalls the political battles that went on in Florida for 25 years over a requirement that all students take a six-week course called Americanism Versus Communism.

The big problem with this legislation, Trimble says, is that there are few events in history that are not subject to interpretation. Even Columbus' discovery of America, he notes, has become the subject of heated debate in recent years.

Mr. TRIMBLE: The legislation would sort of suggest Columbus was a good guy. He came over, discovered America, and God shined on us from that point on and everything was great. I'm sorry. That's not history, that's not interpretation, and that's not social science.

ALLEN: But not all history teachers think the new law is a bad idea.

Mr. JACK BOVEE (Social Studies Supervisor, Naples, Florida): I look to the legislature as our salvation, in a way, so I guess I disagree with Dr. Trimble.

ALLEN: Jack Bovee is a social studies supervisor for the schools in Naples, who's worked for years to make the study of history a higher priority in Florida schools. While he doesn't agree with the statement that history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, he's pleased by a clause that says that history shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and most important, testable. The first step toward improving history education, Bovee says, is to include it in state assessment tests, something that up to now Florida has avoided.

Mr. BOVEE: We have begged the Florida Department of Education for 20 years to assess - to hold us accountable for how well we prepare the future citizens of this state. We have right now second-class, inferior status, which causes many teachers to not take it seriously.

ALLEN: In recent years, Florida, like most states, has gone back to basics, concentrating resources on the subject areas covered under the federal No Child Left Behind Act: math and language arts. Even among its critics, there's hope that the new Florida law may encourage the state to finally give the study of history the attention and the statewide assessment that history teachers say it deserves. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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