MAXWELL:  The price of neglecting history

3/11/1996 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

Michael Gannon, University of Florida distinguished service professor of history, has just authored another book, this one titled The New History of Florida. This volume is remarkable not only because it is a collection of essays by some of the best specialists in their fields, but because it is the first comprehensive history of the Sunshine State in a quarter of a century.

As a native and an avid reader of Florida history, I am surprised that Gannon’s is the first book of its kind in such a long time. Why this apparent lack of interest in Florida history? And what does it portend?

Gary Mormino, who teaches a once-a-year state history course at the University of South Florida, cuts to the chase: “Florida is still a state where most of the people are from somewhere else. Florida lacks a civic tradition and has difficulty getting people to think of themselves as Floridians.”

Now, add to such general lack of interest the harsh realities of tight budgets and we get a scenario that spells disaster for the teaching and the writing of Florida history. In fact, according to history professors at the state’s 10 universities, the number of state history courses falls each year.

At UF, many faculty members want to transfer shrinking funds away from history and into other disciplines. State history, they say, is expendable. When professors retire, some campuses refuse to replace them. Since 1988, UF’s history department _ once one of the best in the Southeast _ has cut 20 percent of its faculty.

I honestly believe that Florida, whose first inhabitants entered the peninsula about 10,000 years ago, suffers because most of its residents are from “somewhere else,” transients who do not give a damn about the the state or its history. Florida’s past _ filled with explorers and pioneers, pirates and warriors, Indians and slaves, pork choppers and mugwumps, industrialists, cowboys and Crackers _ is a tapestry of adventure and discovery worth chronicling and reading.

And, Florida is a fragile paradise at the mercy of interlopers living in the present. For natives like me, Florida is as much a state of mind as it is a slice of land between the Alantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. It is Ponce de Leon and his fountain of youth. It is Henry Flagler and his East Coast Railroad. It is Ybor City and the Everglades. It is St. Augustine and Key West.

Florida is a place that people love to hate. But it also is a place that people could love if only they would learn more about it. Florida could become a place with a civic texture if we understand its past. Professor Gannon’s book is a good place to begin.

Bill Maxwell is a Times columnist and editorial writer.