DeSantis, GOP Legislature, aren’t really clear on this whole ‘freedom’ concept
‘Make America Florida’? It’s more like make Florida Hungary
Florida State University on July 21, 2022. Credit: Danielle J. Brown
Why would Ron DeSantis rather destroy Florida universities than allow our students encounter ideas he doesn’t like? What’s he so afraid of?
Is it that the preservation of slavery was indeed one important factor in getting the white South to support the American Revolution? That Florida was the last state to repeal the “Alien Land Law” barring Asians from owning property? That gender is a spectrum not a binary?
As if such knowledge would hurt people’s feelings.
(What are you, a snowflake?)
Universities are all about the pursuit of knowledge and the interrogation of authorities. We question them all, from Marx to Aristotle, Augustine to Niebuhr, Hawking to Dawkins, Jefferson to DuBois.
We don’t want students to acquiesce or admire uncritically. We teach them to think.
Yet judging by the higher education bill being show-ponied around the Legislature, thinking is the last thing Republicans want. They’d prefer students to be inculcated with cheap cheerleading America First nationalism.
HB 999 would forbid any public institution to promote diversity, equality and inclusion, goals which the governor and his vassals seem to think are somehow un-American — or maybe just insufficiently white.
The current iteration of the House bill requires university trustees to “provide direction” to the university to dump any major or minor which “utilizes pedagogical methodology associated with critical theory,” including “critical race studies, critical ethnic studies, radical feminist theory, radical gender theory, queer theory, critical social justice or intersectionality.”
Republicans in the Legislature would be hard-pressed to explain these concepts (though I’d sure love to hear them try). Evidently, they don’t realize that just because they’d like to pretend that women and people of color can be segregated from their fantasy of a “classical education” and that they can somehow remove gay and trans people from American life, the world has moved on from the 1950s. You can’t legislate ideas.
The Senate’s version is a millimeter less stupid, what with it removing the forbidden majors provision, but who knows what form this monstrosity of a bill will take by the time the legislative session ends?
DeSantis calls Florida “the freest state in America.” As long as you don’t have ideas that make him uncomfortable. As long as you aren’t an academic trying to exercise your freedom of thought. Professors will be prohibited by law to teach anything the governor deems “woke” (and as Humpty Dumpty told Alice, that word means whatever he chooses it to mean). We must not discuss white supremacy, systemic racism, or trans issues. We must not challenge America’s uniqueness or virtue.
The bill demands that universities emphasize “Western Civilization,” by which I suspect the governor and the Legislature have in mind capitalism, cathedrals, and natural rights, not, say, the Atlantic slave trade and anti-Semitism.
If a professor transgresses, she or he (or even they — unlike the governor, we’re not obsessed with pronouns) can be hauled before the university board of trustees — almost all appointed by DeSantis — and be disciplined, stripped of tenure, or kicked out.
It’s already happening: Sam Joeckel, a veteran professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, just got “terminated” for having his students write essays about civil rights. Seems a parent complained about “indoctrination.”
PBAU isn’t even a state school; it’s a private Baptist college. But DeSantis’ spite has infected it, too.
Joeckel had been teaching the same things for years. Since PBAU is a Christian institution, he assumed that writing about social justice — pretty important in the Gospels — would be okay. But it turns out the DeSantisite denomination doesn’t go for that love-thy-neighbor stuff.
Step out of line, pay the price
The faculty at Florida’s public universities are on notice: Step out of line, you’ll pay the price. If one of my general education courses uses what the bill calls “unproven, disproven, speculative, or exploratory content,” I’ll be in violation of Florida law. How do you “prove” what a poem means? Isn’t every discussion of history “exploratory”?
What will the trustees do if they discover that I teach sections of “The 1619 Project”? What about assigning Faulkner’s novel “Go Down, Moses” — a searing indictment of America’s 300 years of institutional racism — or Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” in which a boy plays a girl dressed as a boy then meets a man who falls in love with him, finally coming out again as a girl??
Suppression of knowledge has often been tried before, especially in the Republicans’ beloved “Western Civilization.” In 1633, the Inquisition forced Galileo to disavow astronomical reality and affirm the Vatican position that the Earth was the center of the universe.
In 1933, the German government purged university libraries of books they didn’t like and muzzled scientists whose work was deemed insufficiently Aryan. Albert Einstein was one of them.
Viktor Orbán, Fox News’ favorite dictator (after Vlad the Invader, of course) so hated the democratic project of education, he sent an entire university into exile.
The Central European University, founded by George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire and boogeyman of the Right, had a highly regarded international professorate, attracting the country’s best and brightest students. But Soros, a Holocaust survivor, has never been on board with Orbán’s anti-feminist, anti-gay, Christian nationalism. Hungary’s parliament concocted a preposterous law just to shut CEU down, claiming that because it originated in the U.S. but had no U.S. campus, it could not operate in Budapest.
CEU took its money and its world-class faculty and moved to Austria.
What the governor and his vassals in the Florida Legislature don’t understand is that this attempt to regulate learning will not work. Ideas are hard to corral, texts are hard to imprison. Ban a book and it becomes a bestseller. Ban drag queens and more people want to go to a show. Try to control education and those of us who believe in intellectual liberty will redouble our efforts to teach the truth.
The smug, revanchist board of New College and DeSantis’ handpicked thug of an interim president have just fired the much-loved Diversity Dean, a queer person whose very existence offends them.
They justify their arbitrary and vicious destruction of the qualities that made New College a highly ranked liberal-arts college by claiming that its progressive ideals caused the public institution to fall into dire economic straits.
Well, if the place wasn’t suffering financially already, it sure is now: Big donors have said they will withdraw planned gifts to the new New College, likely to cost it $29 million.
Prestige in peril
New College may soon be hemorrhaging tuition, too. SUNY Binghamton and Hampshire College in Massachusetts, alma mater of documentary maker Ken Burns and writer Jon Krakauer, are offering sanctuary to New College students at the same price they’d pay in Florida.
Over the past few decades, Florida’s public universities have been gaining national prominence and respect, with U.F. and FSU ranked Nos. 5 and 19 respectively among public universities.
That rise in prestige is now imperiled. FSU’s law school has lost several distinguished professors to universities outside of Florida. U.F. has struggled to hire new faculty. I’ve talked to potential students who hesitate to enroll in a college where the state restricts fields of study and polices academic speech.
Perhaps the governor and his pet Legislature are taking their inspiration not merely from Hungary but Hong Kong.
Before 2021, higher ed in Hong Kong was free-wheeling, cosmopolitan, and democratic. Then Beijing brought the hammer down. Now universities must teach a “patriotic curriculum” emphasizing China’s superiority over other nations.
Those who resist end up in jail.
HB 999 tries to decree its own version of a “patriotic curriculum” for Florida universities. We must not “distort significant historical events” or teach “identity politics” such as Critical Race Theory, or define “American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like indoctrination to me. Not education.
Let’s give the text a classroom-style close reading. It says professors must teach “significant events,” say, the colonization of North America and genocide against its native peoples. OK, but how do you separate the “identity” of the Seminoles from the fact that Americans felt perfectly justified stealing their land because they were not white and thus “primitive”?
And how about those supposed “universal principles” in the Declaration: Sure, it says “all men are created equal,” but it doesn’t mean all people. Women and slaves were not included. Their gender and their race disqualified them for full citizenship.
We’re still fighting that battle.
Ron DeSantis campaigns around the nation vowing to “make America Florida.” In the meantime, he and the Legislature are trying to make Florida Hungary.
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