Politics & Policy

Construction Deconstructed

Facts and snippy academics.

Academics are touchy people — especially when mere mortals presume to speak for themselves on matters where the professors claim expertise. So Cornell historian Mary Beth Norton lashed out, in the Sunday New York Times, against the Florida legislature for daring to make law on a subject squarely within its responsibility — educational standards in history — without apparently consulting the most enlightened members of the history professoriate, like, say, Mary Beth Norton. Oh dear, what trouble those poor legislators bought themselves. I’m sure they’re all slapping their foreheads and saying “Dang! Why didn’t we ask this Norton woman for advice!”

#ad#For Norton, the first cardinal sin the legislature could have avoided was its statement, in a revision of Florida education statutes, that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed.” Tsk, tsk. “Facts,” Norton says, “mean little or nothing without being interpreted — another word for ‘constructed.’ All historians know that facts never speak for themselves.” Somehow I think people who have made it their work to write laws didn’t need to be told about the importance of interpretation, of facts or anything else. So Norton’s preening and condescension are certainly misplaced here. Her assertion is a half-truth anyway. Facts are what they are. (The Second Continental Congress did vote for independence on July 2, 1776, to use an example of Norton’s. That speaks for itself whether anyone is listening or not.) “Meaning” is another matter, and facts rise and fall in our estimation with the uses we make of them. This much is true too — one might say it’s a fact — and if that’s all Norton wants to claim, she surely has no quarrel with the Florida legislature.

But let’s do a little interpretation ourselves. It seems not to have occurred to Norton that when the Florida legislature decreed that in the state’s schools history shall be treated by teachers “as factual, not as constructed,” it was evidently taking sides in a debate in Norton’s own discipline. (I say “evidently” because I have no inside dope from Tallahassee — only the eyes of a reader of the statute.) As the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle observed a decade ago in The Killing of History, postmodern social theory has been invading the historical profession, reducing “the belief that there are ‘facts’ about history” to the status of “an ideological position” with no privileged status over the competing view that “history is nothing more than a form of literature.” Perhaps Norton, who declares that she “love[s] facts,” hasn’t heard of this crisis in her own discipline. But someone in Florida seems to have heard of it. And that “not as constructed” language in the new state law was surely aimed at such fashions of postmodernism, with the intent of keeping the state’s history teachers from donning those new clothes.

In part, Norton’s article is devoted to scoring points against the Floridians for doing what (she alleges) they deny should be done with American history: committing interpretation. But Norton actually proves the Floridians’ point, and proves herself quite silly, by working so hard to show that certain interpretations of American history are better or more reasonable or more true to the facts than others. Not that her interpretation is better. But in her clear conviction that an argument can persuade someone to adopt one “construction” of history as better or truer (or even just more useful) than another, Norton shows just the kind of respect for facts that too many of her colleagues have abandoned and that the Florida legislature is concerned to preserve.

The rest of Norton’s argument — advancing her alternative interpretation of those aspects of our history Florida chose to stress — ranges from the quibbling triviality to the wrongheaded assertion. She is concerned that Florida now overemphasizes the importance of the principles in the Declaration of Independence (as if that were possible) at the expense of the Constitution — an unwarranted conclusion, since the two are clearly intended by the law to be taught in tandem. (See pp. 22-23 of this PDF file for the law in question.) She is certain that this is somehow a whitewashing of American history, since “the Constitution supported the continuation of slavery,” which, however much it has become conventional wisdom among contemporary historians, would have been news to every anti-slavery statesman from Alexander Hamilton to Frederick Douglass. They would have said, rightly, that the worst the Constitution did was to accommodate slavery as long as states persisted in sustaining it. That can be called “supporting the continuation” only by the determined critic marketing her own myths.

Norton scolds the legislature for mentioning the “inalienable rights of life, liberty and property” when the Declaration gives the third right as “the pursuit of happiness.” Give her a point here, albeit a small one. The legislature did not purport to be quoting the Declaration in the sentence where this phrase appears — a sentence that also mentions “limited government” and “popular sovereignty,” phrases that don’t appear in the Declaration either. But like property rights, those principles too are present in the text. And did you ever see a law securing anyone’s happiness?

“The Declaration ended, rather than created, a government,” Norton scolds. True, and this is not denied by the Florida legislature. Does she deny what they do assert, that the Declaration was responsible for the “creation of a new nation”? The drafters of the Constitution, who Norton thinks gave little attention to the Declaration, dated their new charter as being written in the twelfth year of American independence.

That’s the same math Abe Lincoln used at Gettysburg when he counted back four score and seven years. It’s the same math that has led our nation for two centuries to celebrate Independence Day, July 4, as the nation’s birthday — not Constitution Day, September 17. Relying on Pauline Maier — “a historian,” Norton snippily notes — she claims that Lincoln was chiefly responsible for our “current interpretation” of the Declaration. Maier can take care of herself, but I think that is more than she really claims in her book American Scripture (1997). But suppose this is a fair interpretation of the meaning and impact of Lincoln’s interpretation. Wasn’t it Norton who started by asserting that interpretation was what really breathes life into history?

Oh, never mind.

 – Matthew J. Franck is professor and chairman of political science at Radford University, and a regular contributor to NRO’s Bench Memos blog.

Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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