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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Why History Matters

A recent report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni questioned the completeness of higher education in Florida. It turns out that only one of our public universities requires students to take any history class at all.

Our current focus on STEM classes (science, technology, engineering, and math) has merit, and yet I think that the degree to which it is emphasized is wholly inappropriate in a democracy. If voters are ignorant of history, government, sociology, and psychology, we literally put our lives and freedom at risk. A great way to build a fascist state is to populate it with technocrats who have no knowledge of world literature, the humanities, or how we got where we are.

There’s a reason why the most ancient written words is poetry, and indeed poetry about history. In such sagas, people told their story to the next generation, and humans came to understand who we are by knowing who we were. That’s how we learn. Learning from the past, in fact, is the only way to learn.

Even in technical subjects such as engineering, everything is based on learning from past mistakes. When a building or bridge fell down, early engineers figured out the reasons why and learned from that. They still do, as there simply is no learning unrelated to the past. History matters in every field of endeavor.

It especially matters in government, where every citizen is a “governor” who makes fundamental policy decisions when they vote. Those voters affect not only their own lives, but also and especially the lives of millions of others. Having some genuine knowledge on which to base that vote is infinitely more important than encouraging every student to learn trigonometry.

* * *

And ignorance abounds. Nor is there a golden past when we were more knowledgeable about history and government. When my husband was a lieutenant in the Army, we played bridge with a couple in which the husband was a captain (a higher rank than lieutenant, in case that is another fundamental on which someone failed to educate you). This was during the Vietnam War, when a captain might command as many as 200 troops, and yet this man was appallingly ignorant of the government he had sworn to uphold. He truly believed that every state was required to elect one Democrat and one Republican to the US Senate!

Not only did he have no knowledge of the fact that the Constitution says nothing about political parties, he refused to accept that the others of us (certainly not his wife) might know more about it. And, of course, to be a captain, he had to have been a college graduate.

A few years later, I was teaching American history in high school in Massachusetts, and one day over lunch, I mentioned to another teacher that I was on World War II. She was of Portuguese heritage, but born in Massachusetts, and she taught Spanish. She hesitated for a minute and then said, “I never had a history class that got to World War II. Umm, we did win, didn’t we?”

She was, of course, a college graduate. The reason why her high-school classes never got to the 1940s, obviously, was because her teachers failed to plan. And the most probable reason for this failure is because those “history teachers” were hired primarily because of their ability to coach some sport. For far too long, school principals assumed that anyone who could read the textbook could teach history – an assumption they never would make about math or science.

My sister-in-law, who was an excellent chemistry teacher, serves as an example of this attitude: when there was a history vacancy in her Missouri school, the principal assigned her to teach it, very much against her will. She knew that she knew nothing about it and resented being in a position where her ignorance would show. This didn’t bother the administrator at all, but probably led to a lifelong hatred of history on the part of her poor students. The reverse, of course, would not happen, as it’s a very rare history teacher who is assigned to stumble through chemistry.

* * *

It isn’t an easy subject to teach, as history is complex -- and controversial. There are simply many, many more ways to go wrong with both the facts and their possible interpretations than is the case with teaching something like chemistry’s periodic table or geometry’s postulates. I’m going to pull an example out of the air: Florida’s Armed Occupation Act of 1842. This is a topic worth pondering, and yet even to set out the context requires context.

Florida was a US territory then, not a state, and territories are governed by Congress and by presidential appointees, not by residents. At the end of the Second Seminole War (and of course, we should pause to point out that it was not called the Second Seminole War at the time, as no one knew that there would be a Third), Congress wanted to divert professional troops to an emerging war with Mexico. Seminoles were to be confined to southern Florida, and to discourage them from going north, Congress passed the Armed Occupation Act. It encouraged white settlers to move to central Florida by giving them 160 acres of land. Congress’ intention was that these civilians would take over where the Army left.

About 1,300 land claims were filed, including many by women, before Congress repealed the act six months later. The repeal was not because it was a failure: it was because, in the view of Florida’s large landowners, it was unfair. The era’s plantation aristocrats did not want to compete with middle-class farmers, and they had enough power in Washington to get the act revoked. It would, however, serve as a model for the 1862 Homestead Act that settled the Midwest. That was passed after Florida and other Southern states left the Union – and 1862 also was the year that Dakota warriors took advantage of the Civil War to attack whites in western Minnesota.

See how many ways you can go with this? You can debate it from the perspective of the Native Americans, the homesteaders, the landowners, and the Congress – to say nothing of the women and the slaves. You can make it clear that the repeal of the Florida act was an early example of Southern states (or at least their leaders) refusing to accept federal aid. You can make the analogy to incentives offered abroad today for peaceful nation building. A good discussion with an opportunity for all views could easily take an hour, and it’s just one brief-lived law.

History is indeed complex and controversial, and it can’t be well taught by amateurs. That is especially true in Florida, where so many people moved here thirty minutes ago – and cast ballots equal to those of longtime residents. Yet we don’t even bother to teach Florida history in high school. That is partly because many professional historians don’t push for local history, which they often see as too parochial.

I have to confess that I once took that view, but doing a four-volume history of women in every state taught me that state history is a microcosm for national history. (That work, by the way, is A History of Women in the United States: A State-by-State Reference. It was published by Scholastic in 2004, and I’ve always wished that they would allow me to take it apart and sell it to Departments of Education in every state.) The point also is true of world history, especially here in Florida, where we have more centuries of interaction with Cuba than say, Connecticut. Globalism is not new, and history should be taught to emphasize that.

The problem is that most of us who are adults now were taught a narrow, memorized version by white men who really were hired to coach basketball. That is not what the subject is today, as young people of both genders and all ethnicities are pushing out the parochial. The Rush Limbaughs of the world rail against “revisionism” – but would they do the same when content for STEM courses is revised because of new knowledge? We need those revisions -- a more informed, more thoughtful view of a past that includes all of us.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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