Following the George Floyd murder and the national discussion over “critical race theory” — which encompasses slavery, segregation and institutionalized racism — Florida’s proposed civics standards for school don’t mention the word slavery.
What is mentioned is the famous phrase: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That’s noted as “God-given rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence,” according to the proposed standards.
But Black people, who were enslaved, did not have liberty at that time.
In another section of the proposed standards, “students will recognize Rosa Parks and Thomas Jefferson as individuals who represent the United States.”
But not all schoolchildren would quickly recognize the connection between the two, even though they are centuries apart.
The late Rosa Parks was a Black woman known for refusing to give up her seat in the back of the bus in order to make room for a white passenger during the segregation era.
Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president of the United States, was the main author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence who also owned hundreds of Black people as slaves, according to an article from the Smithsonian Magazine.
He is a contentious figure, in part, because of his sexual relationship to a young Black slave. She bore his children, according to an exhibit at Monticello about the slave, Sally Hemings. The exhibit explores the relationship and considers whether it should be described as rape.
The proposed standards, along with others, are part of a review of civics education in Florida. The goal is to “ensure Florida students have the highest quality civics education courses throughout the nation,” according to the Florida Department of Education.
But with increased discussion about “critical race theory” and the relationship between race and the history of the United States, the proposed standards could become a point of contention.
What is said, and what is not said in these proposed standards could shape how Florida’s education system addresses history and civics and its nuances for years to come.
“History by its very nature is controversial,” Bob Holladay, an adjunct professor of history at Tallahassee Community College, said in a conversation with the Phoenix. “Teaching history is tough because so much of it is interpretive — it’s not like solving a math problem.” And history is linked to civics.
Another interesting note is the way the language in the proposed standards frames civil rights. It does not directly acknowledge the United States government’s role in ensuring that some groups of people did not have the same rights as others when the country was established.
For example, a standard for high schoolers in the proposed standards suggest that students should know how principles in foundational documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, “expanded” voting rights and civics participation to marginalized groups — rather than acknowledging how the American government originally suppressed the rights of certain groups, such as Black people and women, and how these rights had to be fought for and added into the Constitution through amendments decades later.
In addition, the proposed civics standards could affect conversations around other topics outside of race.
For seventh graders and high schoolers, the proposed civics standards say that students should be able to recognize landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases.
One is Brown vs. Board of Education, declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Another is Miranda vs. Arizona, which is the namesake of the Miranda Rights the police read to people in custody explaining the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.
The examples of landmark Supreme Court cases do not include the likes of Roe v. Wade, which grants pregnant people the right to choose to have an abortion. The list also does not include Obergefell v. Hodges, which granted gay people the right to marry in all 50 states.
The new proposed civics standards are still under review, and the Board of Education will be touring to certain areas in Florida to present the standards and listen to public comments
The tour will be held in three areas: Miami-Dade County on Tuesday, June 1; Osceola County on Thursday, June 3; and Baker County on Wednesday, June 9.
–Danielle J. Brown, Florida Phoenix