Welcome to Minsk, Florida

For the past twelve years I’ve been involved in the leadership of the Civic Education Project, an international NGO devoted to changing the way the social sciences are taught in countries emerging from dictatorship. From 1990-2004 our work was exclusively in the former Soviet states and Eastern Europe and my work with this organization has made me intimately acquainted with the ways that totalitarian and post-totalitarian states attempt to control their populations through the control of what is taught in the colleges and universities. Because I’ve spent so much time helping innovative scholars and teachers in Eastern Europe and Eurasia fight against these attempts by central authorities to control teaching and learning, I was more than a little amazed to read the text of the recent Florida law on education. It could have been written by any number of officials in Kiev, Minsk, or Chişinău.

The new law states: “Soviet 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 People’s Democracy based largely on the universal principles stated in the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.”

Okay, okay. it doesn’t really say that. What it really says is:

“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.”

I don’t know about you, but I can sure see how these two sentences are very different.

If we are to accept this view of history as that which Sgt. Joe Friday used to demand (“Just the facts, Ma’am”), then I submit that we can do away with history teachers altogether. After all, who needs to pay all those K-12 history teachers to drill their students on the facts. Computers are much more efficient delivery systems for factual information than teachers can ever aspire to be. Instead, each state can hire half a dozen or so historians to decide which facts are essential.

Scratch that. No group of historians could ever agree on such a list. Let me start over.

Each state can hire half a dozen policy wonks to decide which facts are essential, then give those facts to a talented educational technologist or three, who can design a series of online learning modules designed to drill the facts over and over until the students get them (mostly) right. At that point, the students can take the online tests created by our hard working educational technologists and the Florida legislature can get instant data on student performance–sort of like the up-to-the-minute reports you get on your stock portfolio. Why, if they were willing to add another $20,000 or so to the budget for this project, we could even set it up so the data are sent directly to legislators’ cell phones so that the representative from Key West, Panama City, or Minsk can be pinged right away with the results of his or her students’ ability to memorize facts about the American past.

Of course, there are two problems with what I’ve just proposed. The first is that a lot of these students will almost surely cheat the system, using our very own H-Bot to answer all the questions for them. As my colleagues Dan Cohen (H-Bot’s father) and Roy Rosenzweig have already demonstrated in their essay No Computer Left Behind“>No Computer Left Behind, H-Bot is really good at state-mandated standardized history tests. Dan recently gave H-Bot dozens of publicly available multiple-choice questions from the fourth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress American-history exam, on which such questions composed about two-thirds of the total. Our little algorithm got a respectable 82 percent right — much better than the average student.

Did I mention that H-Bot’s uncle is Simon Kornblith who was, at the time, a high school student?

The other problem is that, whatever the Florida law might say, their definition of history does not describe either history or historical thinking. Florida legislators can say that their version IS history and they can say it as many times as they like, but that won’t make it so.

The best summation that I know of what historical thinking is comes from Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Phi Delta Kappan, 80/7, 1999). Wineburg says:

“The argument I make pivots on a tension that underlies every encounter with the past: the tension between the familiar and the strange, between feelings of proximity to and feelings of distance from the people we seek to understand. Neither of these poles does full justice to history’s complexity, and veering to one side or the other only dulls history’s jagged edges and leaves us with cliché and caricature. Furthermore, I claim that the essence of achieving mature historical thought rests precisely on our ability to navigate the jagged landscape of history, to traverse the terrain that lies between the poles of familiarity with and distance from the past.”

Alas, for the present, students in the public education system in Florida are doomed to cliché and caricature.

Maybe they’ll decide to move to Minsk instead.