Are We Really in a “Post-truth” Era?

We are nearing the end of Black History Month and a national fight is raging over public education, with its epicenter in Florida. In a recent piece in CounterPunch Anthony DiMaggio lambasted Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, for his agenda to restructure Florida’s public higher education around a “core curriculum” and his proposal to prohibit teaching on diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as any mention of specific perspectives related to gender or race to school children. DiMaggio described such actions as proof that we are «(i)n the post-truth era, where truth is whatever one wants it to be». From Fox News on the right, DeSantis’ Press Secretary described the liberal arts institution, New College, as “completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning». Both sides come from vastly different vantage points, yet both sides connect this battle over education in Florida to the loss of a “truth” that existed before, and which now is in peril. Back in 1995, before we were “post-truth”, James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me critiqued American History textbooks for a tendency to present a view of history that was Eurocentric, inaccurate and false. What, then, was this era of before and where are we now? Moreover, how does the phrase “post-truth” function in the debate over public education?

I went to public high school in a college town in Florida from 1987-1991. I later returned to Florida as a graduate student, earning a PhD from the University of Florida in 2006, in Educational History. These experiences as a student and young educational history scholar in Florida provide me with a unique vantage point to consider where we are now, and where we were before, and how the situation regarding “truth” has changed over time.

AP History Truths

As a high school student, I learned to love history and its intricacies. Because I was a high school student in a college town, I was one of the lucky few students in Florida who had access to an AP history course, which I took my senior year. I was inspired by a teacher who made history “come alive”. I soaked up the details I could find in the textbook and in lectures, was “best in class” and earned top scores on the AP exam. Still, years later when I began my graduate degree in Florida educational history, I learned that there had been massive gaps in the topics covered in my AP history course. In the first place, Black Americans were almost non-existent in the curriculum. I learned that slavery had existed, but not why or how. I learned about the White generals and political leaders supporting or fighting to end slavery, but not about the many Black leaders who took the lead in both the resistance against slavery, and who later took political lead across the South in the era of Reconstruction. The history that mentioned Black Americans was segregated from the main story of U.S. history; the high school had set off the month of February to bring in this “extra” material, which felt superfluous to the history I needed to remember. As a student in an AP history course at a high school in a college town “bubble” I felt that the history I had learned was comprehensive and natural – it was the “truth.”

Black Histories, Lost

My PhD work a decade later focused on the participation of Black teachers in a statewide teacher strike that had taken place in 1968, the year before Florida underwent forcible racial de-segregation of its schools. I began by combing several archival collections and then conducted interviews with retired Black teachers who had taught at the time of the strike. Both data sources described vastly different portraits of how the strike unfolded and progressed. The archival resources that I had been able to access were from mainstream, White Floridian, and national media sources. From the discussions with the retired teachers, however, I grew to understand that these sources did not begin to encapsulate the varying ideas and worldviews that were present during this period.

For example, up until the late 1960s, the editors of The Gainesville Sun, the premier news source for many residents in North Central Florida produced two versions of their paper – one for the White community and one for the Black community. It was, in fact, a policy of the Sun to deliver an early “special” edition of the paper to Black subscribers, with a column written specifically for this audience by a Black columnist. The later “City Edition,” which was delivered to White subscribers within the city limits, did not contain this column, nor did it carry news pertaining to Black church, social, and civic events (UF Special Collections, Gainesville Women for Equal Rights, MS 167, Box 1). While the White «City Edition» of the Gainesville Sun was subsequently archived for posterity, there were only bits and pieces of the Black version kept. For this reason, the story that first emerged from the archival data I collected on the teacher strike told of a dilemma faced by White teachers, between a sense of professionalism and an upsurge in militancy during this period. Left out was a story of Black teachers risking or losing their jobs because White teachers were prioritized to keep their positions in the new integrated schools and the tension felt by many over calls from the statewide teacher union — which had also recently undergone racial integration — for “professional solidarity”.

Towards a More Complete History

My experiences in Florida as a high school student and young scholar provide compelling evidence that the history that was taught and maintained was, at best, an incomplete story. Nonetheless, we see broad reference by both the liberal left and the right that we are now in an era that is «post» truth, implying that we were before in an era of truth.

Erasing or failing to maintain a significant part of history is not a passive activity – it means certain voices are silenced, certain people are not interviewed, certain significant activities are not recorded, certain stories are not written, certain perspectives are not included, and certain documents are not archived. The rise of a recognition that these buried and unspoken histories exist and that they were and are, in fact, just as much a part of the main story line as the history we maintained, learned, and taught is, without a doubt, a challenge to the dominant vision that has prevailed. Historically, a challenge to one’s intellectual and personal vision of what is “natural” results in a backlash. We now see a harsh backlash from the right, and difficulties faced by liberals in challenging this because both sides share a story of change from before to now that is deeply pessimistic. In “radical” contrast, those of us who welcome a more complete picture of history do not share this dystopian view. In fact, we have only just, after centuries, begun to enter a more “complete truth» era. Rather than bemoaning the «end of truth», those of us who care about building an understanding of our world that is more “complete” must actively counter the prevailing “post-truth” narrative. To fail to do so is to actively deny that the best – the most accurate – historical accounts of American history contain a complete set of facts that speak to the experiences of all Americans.

Erika Gubrium has a PhD in sociology and history of education from the University of Florida (2006). She spent several years as a national organizer for academic workers before moving to Norway, where she is now Professor of social work and social policy at Oslo Metropolitan University. Her research expertise lies within the fields of international and comparative anti-poverty policy, with a focus on the social psychological aspects of poverty and socioeconomic precarity.