Senate vote on higher ed bill reveals what undergrads might face in general education courses
University of Florida. Credit: UF website.
After weeks of gut-wrenching debate on the fate of Florida’s public universities, the state Senate on Friday approved legislation to reshape the way university undergrads would learn in essential general education courses — and now students may no longer learn certain things.
The legislation came to a vote of 27-12, with one senator not voting. The House will need to approve the bill as well.
Democrats and members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus have been concerned about what students may or may not learn, based on the legislation. Freshman and sophomore students who usually take general education courses — communication, math, humanities, social science, natural science, and math — to prepare for junior- and senior-level classes.
The legislation (SB 266) says: “General education core courses may not distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics, violates s. 1000.05, or is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.”
And: “General education courses should provide broad foundational knowledge to help students develop intellectual skills and habits that enable them to become more effective and lifelong learners. Courses with a curriculum based on unproven, speculative, or exploratory content are best suited as elective or specific program prerequisite credit, not general education credit.”
And: “Whenever applicable, provide instruction on the historical background and philosophical foundation of Western civilization and this nation’s historical documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, and the Federalist Papers.” (The language doesn’t mention Eastern civilization.)
In the Senate chamber on Friday, Democrat Lori Berman, representing part of Palm Beach County, said, “I really think that we are just sending a bad message to our professors and our students about freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom to learn.”
Democrat Geraldine Thompson, representing part of Orange County, said, “It’s important to differentiate between theories and fact” in discussing the language of the bill.
The legislation says that Florida’s Board of Governors, which oversees the statewide university system, would review each university regarding its programs “for any curriculum that violates s. 1000.05 or that is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.”
But Thompson said on the Senate floor on Friday: “This bill indicates that there should be no instruction that includes theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities. Those theories are prohibited. But what are the facts? And can those facts be taught?”
She mentioned two Black men — George Starke Jr. and Virgil Hawkins — who struggled to enter the University of Florida decades ago. Starke was able to enroll at the law school; Hawkins was denied admission.
“Those are the facts, that is not theory. And we have got to separate fact from theory,” Thompson said. “Not a theory. A fact.”
She added: “On our watch, are we going to allow courses that are not going to focus on the facts? It’s not going to teach what the reality is. …We cannot celebrate where we’ve come from, if we deny where we’ve been.”
Democrat Tracie Davis, who represents part of Duval County, told senators, “This bill is about whitewashing history and not about preserving the integrity of education, higher education.”
Republican Erin Grall, the bill’s sponsor, told senators: “This bill says that we are not going to divide our students. We are not going to turn against each other when we come into our academic institutions because of the policies and some of the courses that are being taught.”
She added: “I believe that this is true academic freedom in this bill. This encourages all voices to be heard, robust debate to happen, and merit and academic rigor to be the upmost importance at all of our colleges and universities.”
Meanwhile, “These bills (SB 266 and HB 999) further the state of Florida’s ongoing attempts to eliminate discussions of systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege from university programs and activities to undermine progress toward racial justice,” Leah Watson, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Racial Justice Program, said last week.
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