The first reading below examines the recent Florida law; the second uses the U.S.-Mexico War as a case study of whether or not history can be viewed as "factual, not as constructed." Two accounts of the war are followed by a short quiz for students, a suggestion for inquiry, writing and discussion and applications to election campaign news reporting.
Student Reading 1
History: Can it be strictly factual?
"Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts."
— Detective Joe Friday of the 1950s TV series Dragnet as he questions a woman with information about a crime
The Florida legislature recently approved an education law that declares, "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed." By "not as constructed" the legislature means "not as interpreted." In short, the facts, without interpretation, should speak for themselves.
But is this possible? Everyone can agree on the fact that the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. But after nearly 150 years, do historians agree on why the Civil War occurred?
In "History Under Construction in Florida," a critical op-ed article in the New York Times, 7/2/06, Cornell professor Mary Beth Norton wrote that the Florida law opposed "constructed interpretations" but "is itself an obvious construction." For example,the Florida legislature defines American history as including "the period of discovery, early colonies, the War for Independence, the Civil War, the expansion of the United States to its present boundaries, the world wars, and the civil rights movement to the present." This list, Norton argues, omits "any discussion of the religious development of the country or the transformation from an agricultural to an industrial economy."
"The history of the United States," the Florida law declares, "shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence" and lists them as: "national sovereignty, natural law, self-evident truth, equality of all persons, limited government, popular sovereignty and inalienable rights of life, liberty and property."
Norton wrote, "An earlier version of the law had emphasized study of the Constitution and the Declaration equally." But "the Constitution supported the continuation of slavery, thereby undermining the notion that the nation from its earliest days had adhered to Florida's list of universal principles, prominently including 'equality of all persons.' In short, a class learning about the drafting of the Constitution would confront the unpleasant reality of founding fathers who either owned slaves themselves or protected the right of others to own them... Under the guise of returning to a factual teaching of history in the state's schools, Florida's legislators have mandated an ahistorical construction that paradoxically distorts the very facts they purport to revere."
According to Norton, the Florida law "highlights a growing tendency in the United States to substitute easily grasped absolutes for messy and ambiguous realities. (Another example of the same type of thinking is the quest of certain judges to capture the 'original intent' of constitutional clauses.) A stress on facts, not constructions, superficially appears to be ideologically neutral. Yet the choice of which facts to stress, and which to omit, is crucial. In the end, history can never be 'factual...not constructed... '"
1. What questions do students have about this reading? How might they be
2. How do you answer the question at the end of the second paragraph? Why?
3. Can you think of any major aspect of American history not included in the Florida legislature's—or those cited by Norton? What?
4. What is Norton's criticism of Florida's abandonment of an earlier version of its law that emphasized equal study of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? Do you agree this criticism? Why or why not? Another stated principle in the Florida list is "inalienable rights of life, liberty and property." Check the wording of the Declaration, if necessary, for the accuracy of this statement of principle.
5. Norton writes, "The Florida law highlights growing tendency in the United States to substitute absolutes for messy and ambiguous realities." What do you understand her to mean? Do you agree? Why or why not? As an example, she offers "the quest of certain judges to capture the 'original intent' of constitutional clauses.'" To what is she referring? Do you agree? If so, why? Can you offer any other examples? If not, why not?
6. Do you agree with Norton's conclusion that "history can never be 'factual...not constructed'"? Why or why not?
7. In another article on the Florida law, Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, writes that it "has its roots in fear." (www.commondreams.org/views06/0717-22.htm), 7/19/06: What do you understand him to mean? Do you agree? Why or why not?
Student Reading 2
Case Study: The U.S.-Mexico War
Can American history be viewed as "factual, not as constructed"? Consider this question as you read the following two accounts of the 1846-1848 war between the U.S. and Mexico.
Account #1: "The War with Mexico"
"The people of Texas declared that their territory extended as far south and west as the Rio Grande. The region which they had actually settled, however, was not so large. As soon as Texas entered the Union the United States sent an army under General Zachary Taylor to take up a position on the north bank of the Rio Grande with orders to hold the country for the United States.
"Meanwhile President Polk developed a plan that he thought would solve the whole matter to the satisfaction of both Mexico and the United States. Polk knew that the vast region which now includes California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and part of Colorado contained very few Mexicans, although it was part of Mexican soil... Polk offered to buy that broad and almost empty country for a good price... The government of Mexico, though poor, was too proud to sell. The Mexicans refused even to listen to Polk's plan. Meanwhile some Mexican soldiers crossed to the north side of the Rio Grande, and a fight occurred between them and some of Taylor's troops. This fight brought on the Mexican War."
—Casner and Gabriel, Exploring American History
Account #2: "The American Invasion"
"The North Americans succeeded in getting Florida, Louisiana, and Oregon with but little effort. However, the rich, fertile and extensive province of Texas excited their greediness. The government...first proposed...to purchase that territory. These offers having been rejected, the American government resorted to a more perfidious policy. It defended the insurrection of the settlers [of Texas] against the Mexican government... Texas, having made itself free, the North American government recognized its independence in a treaty dated April 12, 1844, whereby the United States annexed it in such an outrageous manner that our minister in Washington asked for his passports and left the United States.
"The Congress of the United States approved this scandalous robbery of land, and the government, not yet satisfied, gave this territory further extension by asserting that the Rio Bravo (called Rio Grande by Americans) was its boundary. By means of this brutal stratagem, supported by might, they wished to make people believe that Mexico was the assaulter while she was being mutilated contrary to all rights. For this reason war was declared about the middle of the year 1846... Mexico lost in this war a third of her territory... This rich acquisition of the United States is not going to erase the blot of iniquity which has been written into the pages of her history by this invasion."
— Prieto, Lessons in National History
Source: Shoen and Hunt, Sidelights and Source Studies of American History, Book One
A short quiz
Ask students to complete the quiz below, then discuss their responses.
1. How do you explain the differences in the two titles?
2. Before each item write an A if the two accounts agree on the facts; write a D if the accounts disagree; write an N if there is not enough information to decide.
____ a. The Rio Grande was the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
____ b. The U.S. offered to buy land from Mexico.
____ c. American troops fought Mexicans soldiers who had crossed onto U.S. soil.
3. The accounts include opinion or judgmental words. List three such words from
Discuss student responses to the quiz.
For inquiry, writing, group work and discussion
1. Create a factual account of the U.S.-Mexico War
The Florida law calls for a purely factual account of such developments as "the expansion of the United States to its present boundaries." What would be a "factual" and not a "constructed" or interpretive account of how the U.S. obtained territory from Mexico?
Have students consult at least two other history books dealing with the war and then write a précis that provides a "factual" and not a "constructed" account of how the territory of the U.S. expanded as a result of the war with Mexico. Before students begin, establish with students a definition of "a factual account." An example: A factual account is one that is verifiable and excludes judgmental words.
When students have completed this assignment, divide them into small groups. Ask each student to read his or her précis to the group. Afterwards, group members may ask clarifying questions and discuss them briefly. When all papers have been read, the group is to select for reading to the entire class the précis it regards as best.
When all papers have been read to the class, students might vote on what they view as the best one. Does this précis meet the Florida legislature's standard for a "factual" and not a "constructed" account? Why or why not?
2. Analyze new accounts for "fact" versus "construction."
Like historical accounts, news reports of the "same" event may agree on some basic facts, but often differ substantially. What is included, what is stressed, what is omitted, where the story is placed, judgmental statements and inferences are inevitably different, at least to some extent. "Construction" is inevitable.
Assign students to collect, read, and analyze two accounts of the same election event—for example, a candidate's discussion of a campaign issue—in newspapers and/or on the internet. (TV election news reports might be included, but students will need to take detailed notes and consider additional elements such as the nature and impact of film imagery.)
In their written analysis comparing the reports, students should address significant differences in wording, inclusions and exclusions, objectivity, opinion words, story placement, and length.
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org