Thoughts on history, postmodernism, and politics…

While reading James Loewen’s (2007) Lies My Teacher Told Me, I recently learned about the Florida Education Omnibus Bill (H.B. 7087e3), a 160-page bill signed into law by then-governor Jeb Bush in 2006, which contains provisions designed to “meet the highest standards for professionalism and historic accuracy.” The bill seeks to mandate that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” It further specifies that “the history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth.” Other provisions in the bill seek to place emphasis on “flag education, including proper flag display and flag salute” and on teaching “the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.” The passage of such regulations may be less than surprising given that, as Loewen points out, the requirement to take American history originated as part of a nationalist campaign in the early 20th century.

In somewhat similar example, the Texas Board of Education is reforming curricula to, well, in the words of one board member, “history has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.” Specific to sociology, another board member won passage of an amendment stressing “the importance of personal responsibility for life choices.” As the board member explained, “the topic of sociology tends to blame society for everything.” Interesting to note, “there were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted.”

Coming across these issues made me think back to Doug Booth’s (2005) book The Field, in which he contrasts reconstructionist, constructionist, and deconstructionist approaches to history.  Specifically, while both reconstructionists and constructionists regard materials of the past as the foundations of historical knowledge that yield truth, deconstructionists view history as a constituted narrative devoid of moral or intellectual certainty. Overall, having seen debates take place within academia, and in considering the examples of legislation in Florida and Texas, I am reminded of just how political sociology or history (or any academic field) is. Perhaps ironically, I would suggest, the fact that academic fields are so political seems to lend support to the need for “postmodern” approaches that seek to deconstruct knowledge.

UPDATE: What U.S. history would look like if written by the Texas Board of Education.

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