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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Florida's governor recently signed a law requiring that in the state's public schools, "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."

But uninterpreted facts are like unmined gold; they have no value in the real world. Decades of history classes confined to dates and names produced generations of people who say they find history boring and irrelevant.

And whose selection of facts will be used? Even the driest list of raw data includes certain judgements. The compiler must choose which facts to put in and which to leave out, and must impose some order or arrangement on them. Each of those actions is in itself an interpretation. Presumably Columbus and Montezuma would each select different facts about the arrival of Europeans in the New World.

The Florida lawmakers gave some guidance about which facts are most important. Their 160-page bill mandates topics to be covered by teachers, including an emphasis on the U.S. Constitution, "proper flag display and flag salute,” and “the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.” But according to press reports they left out Native American history entirely. So, like everyone else, they could not help imposing an interpretation of their own: Founding Fathers and free enterprise are more valuable, Indians and their experience are less valuable.

Back in 1894, when professor Richard Ely introduced controversial and unwelcome ideas in his classroom, some of our state's officials tried to limit what could be taught at the UW. His dismissal was demanded by state officials, but when the University regents investigated his activities they famously concluded that, "Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."

This is simply the principle of laissez-faire applied to intellectual life: government shouldn't meddle in the marketplace of ideas. Or one can look at intellectual freedom the way that Founding Father James Madison did -- as a pre-requisite for a successful democracy. He wrote, "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a tragedy or a farce, or perhaps both." [letter to W.T. Barry, Aug. 4, 1822]

There can be no raw, "unconstructed" facts of history. When lawmakers attempt to restrict what history teachers can say or write, and, by extension, what the rest of us can hear or read, they inevitably elevate some values and suppress others. Some facts become centrally important and others get pushed to the periphery. This is also true of every book, article, film, or Web site created by a historian. The best practitioners clearly explain their values and interpretations to their readers and viewers up front.

If the goal of educators is to produce an informed citizenry, then surely it's best to foster the widest possible range of investigation, learning, and speculation by the greatest possible number of people, even though some will always entertain loathsome or even crazy notions. Then let the facts and interpretations stand or fall through unrestricted "siftowing and winnowing" in the marketplace of ideas, rather than through government mandates.

:: Posted in Curiosities on July 13, 2006

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