Does Tennessee’s New History Bill Employ Historical Thinking ?

capitolThe Tennessee General Assembly is currently considering a bill that appears to emphasize a specific political agenda in the teaching of history in the state’s public schools.

The version of the bill passed by the state senate says:

Generally, present law requires the textbook commission to recommend textbooks to the state board of education for use in the public schools of the state. In recommending textbooks for use in social studies, Tennessee history, American history or any related subject, the commission must strive to recommend textbooks that accurately and comprehensively portray the full range of diversity and achievement of racial and ethnic minorities as well as the role and importance of religion in history. This bill rewrites this provision to instead require that the commission, in recommending textbooks for use in such subjects, recommend only textbooks that accurately and comprehensively relate and explain the achievements of United States citizens. The text must describe the factual circumstances of advances in political liberty, economic and technological progress, and the success of the United States as a leader in the age of industry, with emphasis on the political and cultural elements that distinguished America in this era from other nations, past and contemporary. Appropriate commentary would include descriptions of religious, ethnic and cultural values that took America on a different course from other nations.

That description can be interpreted in a number of ways, but it’s not a stretch to assume that the bill’s sponsors want to ignore the complexity of the nation’s history in favor of a triumphalist version that ignores the reality of the American past. That assumption is borne out by a newspaper report that the House sponsor, Rep. Timothy Hill (R-Blountville), “conceded Wednesday that the measure is meant to leave students with certain beliefs, such as the view that the wording of the U.S. Constitution leaves no room for interpretation.” One of the adopted amendments reflects this view: “The Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution with the Bill of Rights, and the Tennessee Constitution with the Declaration of Rights are available for all to read today, and still apply in exactly the words they originally contained in simple English.”

This bill is an unfortunate, but common, example of the lack of historical thinking among Tennessee’s politicians. Hill and the Senate sponsor, Frank Nicely (R-Strawberry Plains), fail to understand that history is not as clear-cut as they want it to be. For example, I wonder how Hill and Nicely would read the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press? Does “the press” refer only to newspapers? According to their definition, one would think so. How does one interpret the Second Amendment, which is hardly clear-cut in it language and punctuation? What did the Declaration mean when it said that “all men are created equal?” If that phrase still “appl[ies] in exactly the words they originally contained in simple English,” I hope Hill and Nicely are prepared to disenfranchise women, African Americans, and maybe even themselves, if they aren’t wealthy enough. I fully support having students read the Constitution and the Declaration (and I often require it in my courses), but to argue that the documents can only be interpreted in the times in which they were written is absurd and ignores some of the real progress of American society.

Just as concerning as these examples is the belief in the United States’ unique and privileged progress that will be communicated to students. There is nothing wrong with discussing the positive contributions that the United States has made; in fact, I think it is a necessary part of a well-rounded history education. But ignoring the negative aspects of American history does a disservice to students and, I would argue, makes them more cynical.

Why? Because they encounter complexity every day, and this bill says that the complexity doesn’t exist. Taking an extreme example (I hope), if this bill suppresses discussion of the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow racism, how would students recognize the contemporary relevance of racism today? If students are not made aware of the incorporation of many socialist policies during the Progressive Era, how can they understand the centralization of the United States government today? If they don’t receive a thorough overview of United States diplomacy during the Cold War, how can they understand the nation’s standing among the world, especially the Middle East, today? None of these subjects has an easy explanation, but this bill suggests that they do.

This bill is an example of the “Humpty Dumpty history” that I wrote about three years ago. It’s simplistic, dumbed-down political indoctrination, and conservatives who support this bill should be ashamed of themselves for doing a disservice to Tennessee students.

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3 Replies to “Does Tennessee’s New History Bill Employ Historical Thinking ?”

  1. It looks like another attempt to force historians to teach a political ideology as history when the facts don’t support that or any other ideology except that of the people involved in making history that is under consideration. The really weird part of this is that these politicians have the gall to say they are for freedom and all things American when what they’re proposing is what totalitarian states like Nazi Germany, communist Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, and religious fundamentalist nations like Iran forced upon their citizens.

    Are the conservatives in Tennessee so desperate to retain political power that they have to resort to writing laws designed to keep them in power? Judging by the comment section the overwhelming response is against this bill. Oddly enough one of the comments was from a guy who botched his history in stating that the US had never seized territory in a foreign war. I guess he either forgot the Mexican War or doesn’t think that counts. We will just skip the part where the US broke all the treaties with Native American tribes.

      1. I think it is because the Constitution is a very barebones guide for government. It created what it was designed to do and that was a strong central government that was clearly over the states; and it also put all thirteen states into one union with no compact or sovereignty issues despite what so many wanted later. It was clear that it was not a compact and they said as much during the ratification process. I don’t think conservatives want the ratification process or the Federalist brought up because that contradicts how they want the Constitution interpreted.

        The really bizarre part for conservatives is that they have to willingly ignore history in making some of the decisions. Strict Constitutionalism was the main plank behind Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800. Yet, he had to abandon that plank fairly quickly because both he and Madison found that it was impossible. I think Madison already knew that, but went along with TJ for political reasons knowing that TJ would discover this for himself which he did. Strict Constitutionalism died with the Louisiana Purchase.

        It died in Washington’s first term because they had to create a government and a lot of what they needed was not mentioned in the Constitution. They had to make it up. People have been arguing over it ever since. Jefferson, for all that he wrote, contradicted himself most of the time with what he did. He said he wanted small government with the states to do most of the things the federal did with no interference. Yet, in his second term he increased the power of the executive branch over the legislative branch, increased the power of the federal government over the states, and used federal military power to enforce his will against those states.

        Gotta love the TJ quotes by people. First, they usually quote stuff he never said or wrote. Second, when the quote is real they get it out of context. It sounds great, but when you put it in context and then compare what he said or wrote to what he actually did, TJ is the worse example any conservative can use. Unfortunately they fail to comprehend that because they really don’t care for context in their history. It alters how they want it to be.

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