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Florida's Divisive Concepts Bill Mistakes What Historians Do, with Dire Implications

Conservative activist Christopher Rufo and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis with supporters of Florida's HB 7, April 2022. 

Two weeks ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed an Amicus Brief in Falls v. DeSantis maintaining that Florida’s H.B.7, which was passed in April and goes into effect on July 1, is unconstitutional because it represents “a gross infringement on… freedom of expression and access to information under the First Amendment.”

Similar to various laws proposed by state legislatures that appear to be modeled after Donald Trump’s now rescinded “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” H.B.7 is intended, in part, to dictate rules about content covered in college and university classrooms. That includes, to use the SPLC’s words, discussions of “America’s legacy of racism.”

At 30 pages long, a number of provisions of H.B.7 alarm people concerned with protecting freedom of speech, but a few notable measures target history education in particular. For example, the law stipulates: “It shall constitute discrimination” to “subject” a student to instruction that “compels” the student to believe that “a person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.”

Lawyers representing the Florida Governor and Attorney General  last week rebutted claims that H.B.7 is unconstitutional. “The First Amendment,” they argued, “does not compel Florida to pay educators to advocate ideas, in its name, that it finds repugnant.”

The language of H.B.7 is, at points, confounding, and the details of how it will be enforced are unclear, but it appears that the law is based on gross oversimplifications of how and why history is taught. It also seems that H.B.7 would make it challenging, if not impossible, for teachers at Florida public universities to offer students, as the American Historical Association put it in a February 2022 letter to the state’s legislature, “a full and accurate account of the past.” 

Although wording in legislation like H.B.7 may suggest otherwise, history professors do not simply catalog atrocity after atrocity and uncritically identify victors and victims. My first goal as a teacher of modern U.S. history is to help students develop the skills that define history as a discipline, including, for example, how to consider and make evidence-based arguments and how to evaluate varying representations of the past. A second goal is to help students understand the historical roots of contemporary problems and to recognize how decisions made in the past influence the present. I also aim to help my students open-mindedly explore multiple perspectives from and about the past to analyze change over time. When learning about the historical factors that have led people to have diverse experiences and viewpoints, students have the opportunity to consider how and why individuals and groups did what they did, to interpret how their actions shaped societies, and to develop empathy. 

“Sources” are the tools of history professors. We use primary sources – artifacts from the period under study – to offer our students windows on to the past. Secondary sources – books, articles, and other texts produced after the period being studied – provide context for understanding how and why the past matters and how certain people, events, and trends are connected.

Florida’s new law would make it difficult for professors to pursue basic teaching goals like the ones I list above.

For example, a multitude of primary and secondary sources that do not necessarily relate to the sort of “advocacy” imagined by politicians could be construed as “discriminatory.”

To cite just one example of a reading that could be used in an introductory undergraduate U.S. history class, teachers are left to ponder whether Andrew Carnegie’s “The Triumph of America” (1885) may be unacceptable in the classroom.

In that piece, Carnegie, who immigrated to the United States from Scotland, writes: “There is no class so intensely patriotic, so wildly devoted to the Republic as the naturalized citizen and his child, for little does the native-born citizen know of the value of rights which have never been denied.”

Carnegie was arguing not only that immigrants played a crucial role in fueling the United States’ economic growth, but also that they had a more profound understanding of the value of rights than their American-born counterparts.

Rather than being free to use Carnegie’s article to generate open discussion about, for example, why the steel tycoon might have made certain arguments, whether he supported his points with ample evidence, and the broader time period, H.B.7 suggests that a history professor at a public university should first consider a daunting question: Could statements in the piece be interpreted as derogatory to “native-born citizens” and therefore “compel” students who, like Carnegie, identify as immigrants, to believe that “they must feel guilt, anguish, or any other forms of psychological distress”?

Though it may seem outlandish, the Carnegie example underscores the extent to which vaguely worded laws like H.B.7 could constrain class content and discussion – even if they never lead to a claim of discrimination. Policies pressuring teachers to limit access to relevant historical evidence ensure that students consider only part of the story. They undercut core tenets of the discipline and teaching of history and restrict students’ opportunities to make sense of their world.

Similar examples of this sort of problem are endless. Most U.S. history survey textbooks and classes cover how Irish and German immigrants established themselves in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They also generally note that those groups faced discriminatory treatment. Would students be tasked with learning only about the positive experiences of Irish- and German-Americans? Would discussions of the hardships those groups overcame be limited because they might “compel” students to believe that they “must feel guilt”?

Of course, a prime target of H.B.7 is the study of the history of racism in the United States. The law, some have said, attempts to “whitewash history” in schools and universities. Indeed, people of all backgrounds might experience a range of emotions – including “anguish” – when they learn basic facts about the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction, and Black Americans’ fight for freedoms. But placing restrictions on the information students may access in classrooms is irresponsible, not least of all because, as Historian Nikki Brown points out, studying the meaning and history of white supremacy can be a powerful means of dismantling it.

The implications of H.B.7 bring to mind a recent piece by Peter Hessler  about his experiences teaching non-fiction writing in China, where students can report professors for “political wrongdoing.” Hessler recalled that when he “made a statement that touched, even obliquely, on a sensitive aspect of Chinese history or politics… the room would fall silent, and students would stare at their desks.” It was, Hessler wrote, “a visceral response.”

Under laws like H.B.7, conveying the complexity and nuances of history – encouraging students to critically analyze the rich stories of their country, including questions about why certain ideas may be defined as “repugnant” at given moments in time – could be construed as a criminal act. For the sake of public university students who deserve free access to information and knowledge, let us not fall silent.