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Fear of History

Florida’s new law undermines critical thinking
Fear of History

But as tempting as it is to ridicule, we should not spend too much time poking fun at this one state, because the law represents a yearning one can find across the United States. Americans look out at a wider world in which more and more people reject the idea of the United States as always right, always better, always moral. As the gap between how Americans see themselves and how the world sees us grows, the instinct for many is to eliminate intellectual challenges at home: "We can't control what the rest of the world thinks, but we can make sure our kids aren't exposed to such nonsense."

 
  Illustration: Michael Duffy

The irony is that such a law is precisely what one would expect in a totalitarian society, where governments claim the right to declare certain things to be true, no matter what the debates over evidence and interpretation. The preferred adjective in the United States for this is "Stalinist," a system to which U.S. policy makers were opposed during the Cold War. At least, that's what I learned in history class.

People assume that these kinds of buffoonish actions are rooted in the arrogance and ignorance of Americans, and there certainly are excesses of both in the United States.

But the Florida law — and the more widespread political mindset it reflects — also has its roots in fear. A track record of relatively successful domination around the world seems to have produced in many Americans a fear of any lessening of that dominance. Although U.S. military power is unparalleled in world history, we can't completely dictate the shape of the world or the course of events. Rather than examining the complexity of the world and expanding the scope of one's inquiry, the instinct of some is to narrow the inquiry and assert as much control as possible to avoid difficult and potentially painful challenges to orthodoxy.

Is history "knowable, teachable and testable"? Certainly people can work hard to know — to develop interpretations of processes and events in history and to understand competing interpretations. We can teach about those views. And students can be tested on their understanding of conflicting constructions of history.

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