By Diane Roberts
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.
Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books.
Let’s hope students stop enrolling in Florida colleges/universities and send a strong message.
Jack Howell says
I used to believe that at the college/university level, students were free to explore their interests. College was a place to learn about yourself, other cultures, government, political ideologies, religions, and all other matters of interest. A history or sociology major would explore racism, slavery, and human trafficking at a minimum. English majors would explore all kinds of literature, which most probably would include books that are being banned today.
A point of order. I have no real clue about what the term “WOKE” means. The definition of this BS word is all over the place. I am a university professor and considered a subject matter expert in the criminal justice field. I teach Terrorism-counterterrorism, Homeland Security, and Weapons of Mass Destruction. In all of these areas that I teach, racism plays a part in the motivation for terrorists. So, will I be muzzled by this Florida governor if I espouse why individuals/groups become terrorists, including domestic terrorists? Will I be arrested, convicted, and jailed because of my comments to a class I teach?
At 80 years of age, I will continue to teach these subjects the way I have always taught them. If you want to arrest me…I dare ya!
Fortunately, I don’t teach in any Florida public universities/colleges. What is taking place on these campuses is nothing short of outrageous. This reminds me of a story. A racist tiger, who hated zebras, decided one day that he was getting a bad reputation and wanted to change his image. He was talking to a giraffe and admired this giraffe. They discussed how he thought he could become a giraffe, so he started to act just like a giraffe. He walked like a giraffe, tried to eat like a giraffe, and slept like a giraffe! However, he soon realized he was still a racist tiger with a hatred for zebras. So the bottom line here is you can’t change our history of racial intolerance.
@Jack Howell –
” I have no real clue about what the term “WOKE” means.”
Well, in the vast majority of the publicized news events concerning “Woke”, it appears that the best definition of the term “Woke” is the one which appeared in the N-J daily cartoon from a couple days ago …
“Woke is anything *I* don’t like”.
Excellent response Jack. Me thinks DeSantis is acting like a Tiger
My sister in law who loves her job as a teacher is moving out of Floriduh
because of all of what is happening to teachers in FL!
James Mejuto says
Diane Roberts: I read with great interest your article regarding gov. desantis and Florida’s universities. Unfortunately, our state
democrat party has not come forward and seems to be useless regarding any challenge to the Republican legislature.
We truly have an American fascist in Tallahassee, campaigning for the 2024 Presidency, piling-up points with the MAGA base.
Communities throughout our state have been assaulted with book banning, school teaching restrictions, abortion challenges but yet, no legislation to help people survive the day-to-day problems in a world where inflation, gas prices and everything else seems to skyrocket out of control. yet a governor who was elected with 51% against a democrat politician who should have stayed home.
What Else Is New says
Diane Roberts gives a startling description of the dystopian society in which we Floridians now live. Is there no stopping DeSantis and his,”pet legislature?” DeSantis wants America to be Florida? Is this because schools are free from banned books, free to teach diversity, the arts and classic literature and free from having those who openly carry guns? We have rapidly lost our freedom since Governor Mr. Freedom won a second term as dictator.
Michael Cocchiola says
I don’t like it here. I did 20 years ago. but that was before extremist Republican domination. Today, we have Ron DeFascist and Moms for Lobotomy. We have Trump and more than our fair share of election deniers. We were overrepresented in the January 6 insurrection. We have an anti-gay; anti-Asian; anti-black; anti-teacher; anti-public education; anti-knowledge; and repressive neo-fascist government. We have, in fact, swallowed the lies and plunged down the rabbit hole.
I want out but I can’t get there. The roots have grown too large and tenacious. So I have to stay and fight back. Inch by inch. Outrage by outrage. Hoping that small victories will become large and small crowds will become a movement.
People continue to vote for Repubs. We will be the 40,s Germany soon. Jews and people of color please be careful and watch and vote the Repubs out.
It’s sad to see that DeSantis and the current Republican Party are busy placing our beautiful Sunshine State into bleak darkness. They just don’t want to understand that we are a country of various views and colors, and we should work together in peace. Instead, they prefer to raise the ire of less than half the country just to make them stand out and keep their jobs for the good of themselves, not the good of the country. The sun will shine again, and they will be an old, sad memory.
Ron Fichtner says
It is not DeSantis that is destroying universities. It is the universities and their preoccupation with “woke” identity politics. They have lost their way in the education realm and are no longer worthy of respect.
GrandPa takes NO Sh *t says
My ONLY Grandson starts his first year in a Florida College this Fall. If ANYTHING bad happens to him because of some radical woke bullshit. I will personally open a 55 gallon can of WHOOP ASS on that schools faculty and “wanna=be’
commie professors . Not a threat….its a freaking GUARANTEE !!!!
GrandPa: That’s a threat, and I hope Flagler’s Sheriff’s Department takes notice.
By the way:
(1.) A Middle English form of week.
(2.) Preterit and past participle of wake.
– The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.
Republicans have come up with “alternative facts” describing the meaning of woke. Don’t tell me, GrandPa, that you have never heard the word before.
So, in other words, Diane, you want them to be liberal Democrats. Thank God for DeSantis, then.
Not sure we should add any credibility to this article for someone who wrote “The Myth of Aunt Jemima” as a book….
It’s not up to the government to get people out of their situations it’s up to the people to get themselves out of their situations. Why do we never discuss Western slavery where white people were enslaved for thousands of years before America had African slaves? Why do we not discuss the modern day slavery that is still going on in some countries around the world? Women are still being suppressed in some countries why do we never talk about that? Why do we never talk about how much money college coaches are making when we could be putting that money towards STEM? Everyone in this country has the exact same rights whether you agree with it or not. It’s a fact. Oh by the way do I get reparations because my forefathers from Scotland were slaves to Romans? I could go on for days about how wrong this article is in so many senses but don’t have the time to argue with idiots.
Local, is it true whites were slaves before my ancestors? I must research that. Were they lynched?
For Real says
Not only his he destroying the Universities in Florida, he is doing the same to the lower grade schools with book bans, and not to mention how he is destroying the whole State of Florida with his dictator practices. And he wants to be President, that’s a joke, no wonder his approval ratings are going down.
Donald J Trump says
DeSantis is one sick asshole proves it on a daily basis. No person with an IQ above freezing would buy into to any of his self created problems that don’t exist in the real world. Banning books and not guns, driving up prices on all necessary consumer’s purchases and so forth and so on simply proves my opinion of this sick and demented idiot. I’m truly sorry for ever endorsing and giving support to this poisoned “Meatball”.