Educational Toleration

NPR reports on a new Florida law that requires the teaching of American history in the schools and sets up some rules for how it should be taught. At the beginning of the report I was amused by the description of the impetus for the law:

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.

The name of the lieutenant governor? Let’s see … kids who can’t vote can’t name a public official who has no power. And that’s a problem? But OK, they should know the difference between the legislature and the Congress. And so:

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.

Indeed, the bill does say:

American history shall be viewed as factual, not as 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.

And that has stirred controversy. Teachers and educrats and a Washington lobbyist for historians (!) all complain that history is not just “facts,” that interpretation is essential for understanding what happened. And of course they’re right. The first problem is that millions of things happened every day in 400 years of American history (note that “400 years” assumes that American history began with the arrival of European settlers). You can’t tell kids every one of those things, so already you’re picking and choosing among facts, based on some theory or assumption about what’s important.

And then of course history is full of controversies: Did the British treat the colonists unfairly? Did the colonists treat the Indians unfairly? Were the costs of the American Revolution worth it? Were the Founders hypocrites to proclaim their devotion to liberty while holding slaves? And so on and so on, right up to the dropping of the atomic bomb, the debacle of Vietnam, and the contemporary questions of whether either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush was the worst president in American history.

But the mere listing of a few historical controversies illustrates the difficulty of deciding on a “right” answer. Whose interpretation should be taught to all students in government schools? Should we tell students that Jefferson was a hero or a hypocrite? That the 600,000 deaths in the Civil War were or were not worth it? That the bombing of Hiroshima was a war crime or a necessary measure to save even more lives? That FDR saved capitalism or transformed a federal republic into a centralized welfare state?

There are no right answers to these questions. (Well, there are, but apparently not everyone sees them.) So the teaching of history becomes a political struggle: Which faction will get to impose its view on millions of children?

The way to avoid political fights like these is to depoliticize them. Take away the power for anyone to impose his or her views on all the children. People used to expect the state to impose one religion on the whole society. When, nevertheless, people came to hold differing religious beliefs, Europe went through the Wars of Religion. And out of those conflicts came a new understanding: religious toleration and the separation of church and state. Let everyone worship as he chooses, and let no one impose religion on those with different beliefs.

The separation of school and state would accomplish the same thing in education: No more political fights over school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, gay teachers, evolution, dress codes, sex education, or historical interpretation. Let every family choose schools that reflect their own values or otherwise best meet their educational needs. And if we can’t achieve separation, we could at least adopt toleration: Let all parents send their children to schools they choose, without financial penalty.