What the DeSantis agenda means for higher education in Florida
Governor Ron Desantis has signed a new Florida higher ed law.
Florida public colleges are now banned from offering general ed classes that “distort significant events” or “teach identity politics.”
The law also bans state schools from using public money for diversity programs.
Critics are calling it an attack on the very purpose of a college education.
“The less information people have access to, the more they become indoctrinated. The importance of higher education is to teach people how to ask questions, how to analyze and assess information, how to figure out their own ideas,” Eden McLean, associate professor of history at Auburn University, says.
Today, On Point: Florida and the future of academic freedom.
Ana Ceballos, Florida state government reporter at The Miami Herald.
Andrew Gothard, statewide president of the United Faculty of Florida, a union representing the state’s higher education faculty, academic professionals and graduate assistants. Senior instructor of English at Florida Atlantic University.
Eden McLean, associate professor of history at Auburn University.
Will Creeley, First Amendment attorney, legal director for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
Jiselle Lee, University of Florida senior and editor-in-chief of student newspaper The Alligator.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Florida Senate Bill 266 signed into law this month by Governor Ron DeSantis, ushers in significant changes to the state’s higher education system.
GOV. RON DeSANTIS: We’re going to elevate merit and achievement above identification with certain groups. And in order to do that, we had to look at this new concept, relatively new concept called diversity, equity and inclusion.
CHAKRABARTI: Specifically, the law prohibits any Florida public college or university from spending any funds on activities or programs that, quote, promote or engage in political or social activism as defined by the State Board of Education. It also seeks to protect viewpoint diversity on college campuses, provide training related to civic education, open inquiry and civil discourse.
DeSANTIS: We want our higher education system to reflect the best interests of the state of Florida. It’s our view that when the taxpayers are funding these institutions, that we as Floridians and we as taxpayers have every right to insist that they are following a mission that is consistent with the best interests of our people and our state.
CHAKRABARTI: But then SB 266 reaches down to the level of what instructors can say and teach in the classroom. Mandating that general and core courses may not, quote, ‘distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics, or is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States.’
DeSANTIS: Florida is getting out of that game. If you want to do things like gender ideology, go to Berkeley.
CHAKRABARTI: That was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis you just heard. Now parts of Florida’s new higher education law draw their inspiration from model legislation published by the conservative Goldwater and Manhattan Institutes, where the model legislation says, quote, ‘Public or land grant institutions of higher education in the state may not expend appropriated funds to support diversity, equity and inclusion offices.’
The Florida law says, quote, ‘A Florida college system institution may not expend any state or federal funds to promote, support or maintain programs that advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion.’ Well, Adrienne Lu of the Chronicle of Higher Education says Florida isn’t alone.
ADRIENNE LU: We have identified 34 bills across the country in 20 states so far. Three of the bills have been signed into law, two of them in Florida and one in North Dakota.
CHAKRABARTI: Other states where legislatures are considering similar proposals include Texas.
CARL TEPPER: Diversity, equity and inclusion. We call it division, inequity and doctrine purposely being misused to push a very woke, very liberal agenda. And by the way, that’s fine, but not on the state line.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s Texas State Representative Carl Tepper. There’s also Ohio State Senator Jerry Cirino.
JERRY CIRINO: The lead item in the bill was to make sure that our universities and community colleges are beacons of free speech, that we do not have restricted speech, and nobody should hold back in expressing their opinions and should feel comfortable arguing and debating and dealing with issues that are important to them.
CHAKRABARTI: And Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt.
KEVIN STITT: I think it’s nonsense. Why are we spending taxpayer dollars on this stuff? We already have anti-discrimination laws on the books. And I think that’s contrary to the mission that we’re trying to do in higher education.
CHAKRABARTI: Colleges and universities should be places that welcome a broad diversity of views. And we’ve done shows about professors who worry about reductions in their academic freedom due to cultural pressures from the left. But now we have activists on the right using the power of the state to supposedly protect viewpoint diversity by banning certain viewpoints. So does this specific moment find echoes anywhere in history? Well, let’s focus a little bit more on Florida. Ana Ceballos joins us. She is a Florida state government reporter for the Miami Herald and she joins us from Tallahassee.
ANA CEBALLOS: Hi, thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: So, first of all, SB 1066 Floridians might be familiar with some of the language in the law. Was a similar idea floated before in the legislature?
CEBALLOS: Yes, the governor, Ron DeSantis, has really been pushing against the theories of critical race theory and some of these themes since really the pandemic started, or when there was more attention being paid to what was going on with the racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd. But it really did start in the K-12 system. Now it’s spilling into the higher education system.
But the first piece of legislation was something that the governor nicknamed the Stop Woke Act, which was really meant to address parental concerns that he said were related to teaching kids how to hate the country. And that those theories were, for example, aiming to prevent students from believing or feeling guilt or anguish about actions that other members of the same race or color as them were committing. So they wanted to really avoid the teaching of that in K-12. Now we’re seeing it expand to higher ed.
CHAKRABARTI: But just briefly, I understand that the there was an attempt to expand into higher ed before, but that legislation got stopped, right?
CEBALLOS: That’s correct. That initial law, the Stop Woke Act, applied to K-12 higher education. And even employers, for example, who did trainings on diversity. And it was blocked, temporarily blocked by a federal judge who called it a, quote, positively dystopian proposal for professors and students in higher ed. So it has been temporarily blocked from being enforced in higher ed, but the state is appealing it and it is resurrecting that idea in this new bill that was just signed into law.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, I mean, it’s virtually the identical language, isn’t it?
CEBALLOS: It is. It’s pretty much the same. It’s designed to apply in the same way.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now, I should note that we reached out to Governor Ron DeSantis office for a comment or to see if he could join us. We received no response. We also contacted every single Florida state senator who voted for the new bill, new law, SB 266. They either did not respond or declined an interview. But so, Ana, can you tell us a little bit more about what the enforcement mechanisms would be that are within this new law? For example, regarding the prohibition now of teaching, you know, certain ideas or theories in general education classes, how would that be actually enforced?
CEBALLOS: Sure. So one thing I’ve learned while covering education here in Florida over the last couple of years is that these bills and laws, legislation are being written in an overtly broad way. So sometimes it’s really difficult to pinpoint exactly even if a theory is defined in statute, it is broad enough where there could be different interpretations as to how a parent interprets it, an administration interprets it, or faculty and teachers interpret it.
So the enforcement mechanism, it’s really in question as to how some of these broad definitions will be objected to. But the other thing that is in this law is that it does not really state and spell out how the state university’s board of governors will be enforcing it, other than to say that they are going to be reviewing the curriculum and making sure that each university and each college is aligned with the mission of the state and there is rulemaking authority given in the state law. But those rules have yet to be implemented.
So we really don’t know what it’s going to look like. But history has shown us that in K-12, for example, when these laws were being implemented in enforced administration, the school districts, for example, were telling teachers to err on the side of caution. And we’ve also seen Republican lawmakers who hold the majority in the legislature in Florida, that they have been using the budget as a tool. To enforce some of these laws so we could see potentially the withholding of funds, funding cuts as a potential enforcement mechanism.
However, none of that is spelled out as of yet. And there has not been a test case as of yet as to how this could potentially be enforced. If there is an initiative or a campus activity or curriculum that is in violation of these theories.
CHAKRABARTI: [There’s] a lot of attention about not spending any funds whatsoever on activities that support issues around diversity. Does that include like student funds, like if a student group wanted to hold an event?
CEBALLOS: Well, there is like very explicit language, right? So it’s state universities, say colleges and direct support organizations, which could be foundations or any other groups that receive state funds, would not be able to use this money to promote or support or advocate or anything related to these theories. Student activities, it would just depend how they’re being funded. I mean, there could be a variety of ways. And so it depends on whether it falls under that definition.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, you know, I’ve just got a minute left with you, and I want to go back to something you said a little bit earlier. There’s no outlined enforcement mechanism in the law, but it does seem to give both university presidents and the state board of higher education more power in approving curriculum or even being the place where some of these future issues might be adjudicated now. The board is they’re made of political appointees. That’s common in a lot of states, also in Florida.
CEBALLOS: Absolutely. And that has been a pretty key provision in the new law, because it spells out the university presidents would have the authority to delegate, for example, to deans or department chairs to get advice about who to hire, who to fire. The power is really to give it to political appointees and the presidents who are selected by those political appointees to run the university. And DeSantis has even suggested that that is how he wants to do it, because he has eluded that it will make it easier to make changes if there is some objection from the state as to how they’re handling certain situations.
CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re talking about new legislation signed into law this month in the state of Florida that seeks to make very big changes to higher education in that state, specifically along the lines of prohibiting the expenditure of any funds, if a program is related to efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion. And also even banning the teaching of those ideas and others in general education classes in Florida colleges and universities. Now, the state of Florida is not alone in this. We’ll talk a little bit later in this hour more about how similar legislation is pending in a lot of other states. But regarding that banning of certain curriculum in college courses, a big question is, does Florida’s higher education law violate the U.S. Constitution?
WILL CREELEY: When politicians go into the classroom, they’ve exceeded their constitutional bounds, and there’s 60 years of First Amendment case law from the Supreme Court on down, making clear that academic freedom, that is the right to challenge the unchallengeable, have these discussions in our college classrooms is a special concern of the First Amendment.
CHAKRABARTI: Will Creeley is a First Amendment attorney and the legal director of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE. And interestingly, FIRE has also been on the forefront of protecting academics and students with unpopular opinions from university retaliation.
So they are concerned about all attacks on speech. And Creeley says the Florida law is essentially the same as the higher education portion of Florida’s Stop Woke Act that was signed into law in 2022. We heard about that a little earlier in the show, and it was Creeley’s organization that sued over that part of the law, and that resulted in a court temporarily blocking it. But Florida appealed the decision. It’s now on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
CREELEY: Florida is arguing in federal court that professors are simply spokespeople for the government. That is, they’re reading from a government script and they’re just government employees. The same way a press secretary for the governor would be. That they have to stick to the government’s decisions as to what’s appropriate to discuss in class. That should scare the hell out of anybody who cares about American public education and particularly our colleges and universities.
CHAKRABARTI: Again, it’s the specificity of using state power to impact speech that Creeley is particularly worried about. Because he says that court precedent for protecting universities as places of free expression goes back to the 1950s with McCarthyism and the Red Scare.
CREELEY: Professors were told that they could not teach in public university classrooms if they had been members of Communist or socialist parties. They had to declare a kind of loyalty oath to the state before teaching. And the Supreme Court made clear that politicians in the legislative process can only go so far. In the classroom, we are allowed to discuss and debate ideas. That’s the whole point. So if you start restricting the academic freedom of teachers, the court put it very starkly civilization will stagnate and die.
CHAKRABARTI: On the other hand, supporters of Florida law would note that the law includes a portion that says universities cannot require professors or instructors to issue diversity statements. So we’re going to talk more about that and what that means a little bit later. But Creeley argues that it’s important that court action against Florida law that’s now in federal court continues because, as noted before, other states could follow suit across the political spectrum.
CREELEY: It’s not hard to imagine a governor of a blue state, Governor Newsom, saying in this state, we won’t discuss, you know, arguments for Second Amendment rights or what have you. As soon as we allow elected officials to start saying here is what knowledge is, what education can be, particularly in the higher ed context, we’re in trouble.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s Will Creeley, a First Amendment attorney and the legal director of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Well, Andrew Gothard joins us now. He’s a senior instructor of English at Florida Atlantic University. He’s also statewide wide president of the United Faculty of Florida, a union representing the state’s higher education faculty and academic professionals. And he’s with us from Orlando. Andrew, welcome.
ANDREW GOTHARD: Hey, Meghna. Thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: So, first of all, how are our faculty reacting to the passage of SB 266?
GOTHARD: Well, it’s a mixture of fear and fury. That’s the clearest way to describe it. Fear, because these laws are clearly designed to chill freedom of expression. Academic freedom. Freedom of speech and other rights on campus. And then fury at the idea that the government in Florida believes it has the right to mandate the speech of citizens and to tell adults what they can and cannot learn on their higher education campuses.
CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell me more about the concerns that you and other instructors have about starting soon, how this might already change what you do in the classroom?
GOTHARD: Absolutely. So one of the key problems with this law and the previous guest, I think, laid this out very well. Is that it is purposefully, vaguely written. The law does not clearly identify what diversity, equity and inclusion are. And it’s very clear that our governor, Governor DeSantis, as opposed to the people who actually do the work on our campuses, have very different definitions of what diversity, equity and inclusion actually mean.
So the purpose of that, though, is to cause faculty to chill their speech preemptively, to think, well, if diversity, equity and inclusion are banned and it’s unclear what sort of courses or roles or positions fall into that, then I need to remove readings. I need to change teaching assignments.
I need to not have certain discussions in class because I don’t want my program to be defunded by the government. So what’s happening is faculty are preemptively censoring themselves in order to avoid attacks from the state. And if that sounds to you like it’s fundamentally anti-American and undemocratic, you would be right. And it’s also unconstitutional.
CHAKRABARTI: So, you know, there’s kind of two parts to this as far as I read it. There’s the defunding part, right, where there’s this express prohibition against using any funds, whether state or federal, even student funds, as far as I can understand for any program that, again, as you say, vaguely supports diversity, equity, inclusion. And then there’s the direct prohibition on teaching certain ideas in General Ed courses. Now, can you help me understand what General Ed courses in the Florida higher ed context actually means?
GOTHARD: So general education courses are those courses that all students who go to a university or college have to take. They’re traditionally considered to be sort of foundational requirements in mathematics, history, philosophy, art, right. Sort of across the board, when students get to their upper-level courses, they’re all operating from the same general knowledge foundation.
So any changes to general education requirements are going to affect all of the students of Florida. So this is a wide-ranging attack on the rights of faculty to speak truth and to teach openly and honestly under an authoritarian regime. And it’s an attack on the rights of students to hear ideas and to have access to the full range of ideas that are available in our society.
Now, the concern here, one of the biggest concerns is this is coming from the state, right? So the power of the state is behind this law. And at the same time, and I’m not doing any false equivalency here, I’m just trying to understand sort of what has allowed a law like this to propel itself through the legislature and to the desk of a governor who signed it. Because, you know, I’m looking at the state beliefs around the state of freedom of expression on college campuses.
And one of the things that the law points out is that a Florida State University, quote, may not require any statement, pledge or oath other than to uphold general and federal law or the U.S. Constitution.
Now, that, to me, is going directly towards this trend that we’ve seen of so-called diversity statements that faculty have to write and sign and submit. Stating what they will specifically do to advance DEI provisions at their respective institutions. I’m just wondering if you’ve seen other forms of speech or academic freedom, again, culturally be chilled on college campuses?
GOTHARD: Yeah, absolutely. And it really goes back to what fundamentally is underlying all of these attacks. The demonization of diversity, equity and inclusion. Which, by the way, those programs are fundamentally good for higher education because they help underrepresented groups and members of society actually have a presence in our education system and help them succeed.
But the underlying narrative about all of this is that Governor DeSantis and his supporters want to whitewash American history. They want to essentially ban universities from talking about ideas that are basic to our country.
That Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but he was a slave owner. That freed slaves were not considered full human beings in our Constitution, that the University of Florida did not admit Black students for the first hundred years of its history. These are not theories. These are facts. But these are the exact facts that Governor DeSantis wants to erase. And he wants to camouflage that attack, that whitewashing of history under concerns about diversity, equity and inclusion or discussions that racism, systemic racism could be inherent to our society.
So all of those ideas that are very important for understanding the cultural moment that we’re in now are being chilled by this law, because the goal is to make faculty sit back and wonder, does my speech fall under the ban that the government has created? And if it does, what boogeyman? Whether my department chair, my dean, my provost, the board of trustees, political appointees that I interact with, who’s going to get involved to make my life more difficult.
And I would also add that this is joined with the attack on unions like ours. Governor DeSantis is trying to dismantle public sector unions that do not traditionally support conservative causes. Because he knows that by taking away the collective voice of faculty, in particular across this state, it will be easier to target and eliminate individual faculty members from these campuses who teach subjects that he personally and politically disagrees with.
CHAKRABARTI: I want to say again that we did reach out to Governor Desantis’s office for comment statement or if he could join us, did not hear back. We also reached out to every person, every state senator that voted for this new law, and they either did not respond or declined to comment.
But Andrew, you’re specifically talking about … I just want to read the language of this portion of the law. Because it says the board of governors shall periodically review the mission of each constituent university and make updates or revisions as needed.
“Upon completion of a review of the mission, the board shall review existing academic programs for alignment with the mission. The Board shall include in its review a directive to each constituent University regarding its programs for any curriculum that violates another section of the law, 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.” So let’s say for a moment, Andrew, that you had to teach a course that took that mandate into account. I mean, how would you teach the colonial era in this country, or the civil war in this country?
GOTHARD: Well, you’d have to teach a severely redacted, edited version that is motivated by censorship from the state. You would have to omit or whitewash portions of American history that talk about systemic racism in the way our laws were written. You would have to avoid discussion of Jim Crow laws, for instance. You would have to avoid discussion of segregation in our schools. You would have to broadly eliminate the history of the people of color in Florida and in the United States from your teaching in order to avoid being fired, having your program canceled or defunded, or having your courses eliminated from the mission of the institution itself.
And that is where the United faculty of Florida comes in. If you look at the way that language is written, you can tell that the goal of those changes and those amendments to that legislation was to make it difficult to pinpoint who’s going to get dragged into court and who’s going to get protested for violating the fundamental constitutional rights of our higher education students and faculty.
The fact that these legislators and the governor wouldn’t even come on to do an interview shows you the lack of pride they have in the horrible work that they did this session. And as soon as the Board of Governors takes action to eliminate programs and classes, because faculty are teaching openly and honestly about American history, you better believe that UFF is going to be there to give them a hell of a time.
CHAKRABARTI: You know, I want to just emphasize something that again, to me, there’s a difference between some cultural pressures and pressures that come from the power of the state. So I am not making an equivalence here between the two. But I am trying to understand, again, how we got here. And I want to go back quickly to those diversity statements that I was pointing out earlier, Andrew.
I mean, you know, there are places where instructors are required to issue those statements as a condition of their employment. And in a sense, they’re asked to express their loyalty to the ideas of diversity, equity and inclusion, whether or not they agree with all of them. And then we have now the longstanding news items of people with conservative viewpoints being disinvited to speak on campus or being shouted down, etc. I’m just wondering, again, not saying that the state should step in and tell people how to think, but how much do you think the culture of college campuses has played into getting us to this moment?
GOTHARD: You know, I think there’s a lot of misrepresentation going on about all of those items that you just mentioned. So, for instance, diversity, equity and inclusion statements. I have yet to see instructions for a statement that requires some sort of assertion of loyalty to diversity, equity and inclusion as a means of employment. What I have seen are basic opportunities for individuals to show how they understand inclusion requirements and how they are going to enact those in their classrooms.
So, for instance, in both Florida law and in federal law, there are nondiscrimination requirements as they apply to the workplace, and those include education. So a DEI statement is your opportunity to say, I understand that I have nondiscrimination requirements in my classroom and here is how I create my assignments, and how I put together course readings and how I do exams to make sure that all of that is accessible to everyone, regardless of race, ability, background, whatever.
So I see these as positive things and I have yet to be shown an example of where it’s some sort of loyalty oath. But at the same time, when I hear people talk about conservative speakers who have been disinvited, every time I see that, what I find is that students are exercising their constitutional rights to protest a speaker with whom they disagree. I think that’s a good thing.
Students should be able to protest and share their opinion, and then it is up to the administration to decide how they want to respond. And, you know, if that speaker is expressing hate speech or white supremacy or other ideas as opposed to traditional viewpoints, I think that’s something that the institution should grapple with and decide if that person has a place on a campus of higher learning where we should be speaking truth.
CHAKRABARTI: A little bit earlier, you heard from Adrienne Lu, senior reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education. And remember, she told us that The Chronicle of Higher Ed has actually been tracking legislation targeting these programs across the country.
ADRIENNE LU: We’re focusing on four areas, and the four areas are one, banning diversity offices, diversity, equity inclusion offices or staff or programing. One would ban mandatory diversity training. One would prohibit the use of diversity statements in hiring or admissions or promotion. And one would ban the use of identity characteristics such as race and sex. In, again, admissions, hiring or promotions. Looking at those four specific areas, we have identified 34 bills across the country in 20 states so far. Three of the bills have been signed into law, two of them in Florida and one in North Dakota.
CHAKRABARTI: And those four areas that Adrienne talked about were also the focus of the model legislation drafted by conservative groups, the Goldwater Institute and the Manhattan Institute.
LU: They believe that diversity, equity and inclusion offices have become a large bureaucracy in higher education that they feel does not have value. And that also promotes a uniformity in thought in that they believe that it restricts academic freedom. And so they propose this model legislation.
We’ve seen, you know, variations of it across the country. Some of the bills, you know, definitely follow the model legislation more closely. Others take their own versions of it. But we’ve certainly seen at least the ideas in many states across the country.
CHAKRABARTI: Joining us now is Eden McLean, associate professor of history at Auburn University, and she joins us from Auburn, Alabama. Professor McLean, welcome.
EDEN McLEAN: Thanks so much for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So you’ve written about the Florida law and laws, I should say. And you wrote this, which has really caught my attention. You said that, ‘Critics, including scholars and politicians, have often decried such measures, not merely as symptoms of America’s culture wars, but as distinctly fascist. And then you say, I am often frustrated by the ways fascism is applied uncritically as a substitute for something I don’t like.’ Does the word apply here in this case?
McLEAN: I want to tread carefully. Because I think it is really both powerful and disingenuous to use the term fascism uncritically. And when you’re angry about something. But there are several characteristics of DeSantis’s sort of program, projects as regards to education that really do have echoes in fascist regimes or fascist agendas.
And I am absolutely not saying that DeSantis is fascist. For one, he does not have a paramilitary organization at his command. But there are important characteristics that need to be thought about as we move forward, as long as we want to maintain a democratic society.
CHAKRABARTI: Can I just jump in here, because I should outline your bona fides here. You’re specifically a historian of fascism, and particularly Italian fascist education. And so you’ve said that you see some echoes there between what happened in Italy and some of these ambitions that you’re seeing in U.S. states. And the echoes being that it exposes a shared threat to democracy. So give me the details about why. What happened in Italy that strikes you as so familiar when you see what’s happening here?
McLEAN: Sure. Well, I think it gets back to one what people think the role of education is. And in fascist Italy, the role of education was to train children to be loyal Italian fascists of the state. And to be loyal fascists in the sense of both embodying and supporting the values of the fascist regime in terms of, say, obedience, piety and loyalty.
And so the characteristics that I’m most alarmed by in terms of DeSantis’s acts and frankly, those in other parts of the states are sort of five tendencies. One is to basically ignore the experts in education and in particular fields. Two is to punish opposing viewpoints, if you can’t just easily get rid of them. Three is to claim that society is falling apart and you are there to serve the leaders there, to fix it and get it back on track and use fear as a tactic to do that. Four, to define very narrowly the collective experience of the community. And five claim that these policies are a result of so-called popular will. And DeSantis does this by talking about it being sort of parental rights.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, okay, that’s quite a few parallels that you’re talking about here. I mean, I’m seeing you’ve written that more even more specifically as … Mussolini solidified his power in the 1920s, he increasingly placed restrictions on school curricula. And so, yes. This is where I mean, to me, the question really here is the use of state power.
Because folks who have concerns about already extant squeezes on freedom of expression on college campuses, what they would point to, you know, certain progressive orthodoxies and the way that they are imbued and perhaps even taught on college campuses as producing exactly what you said, the obedience, piety and loyalty to a certain set of ideas. And they want to push back against that by making, you know, different viewpoints welcome again on campus. But I keep coming back to this is the difference between that and what we’re seeing with these laws is effectively the use of the power of the state.
McLEAN: Yes, absolutely. Although, to be honest, the power of the state in this country has been used frequently to discuss and restrict academic freedom, as several of your guests have already discussed. And the particular challenge here is, as you have also discussed, the fact that the school board in Florida and elsewhere is made up of political appointees. And until March of this year, there was not a single educator on the Florida Board of Education.
One teacher was added at the very end of March. And so it is that they are using the power of the state to mandate specific ideas, because frankly, we have curricular expectations across the board, but that the mandates are being designed and developed by people who are not experts in pedagogy or the specific fields of study that they are discussing. And so more and more, it is about creating curricular demands that are based on sort of personal desire or an understanding of what is important to learn as opposed to any kind of intellectual or well thought out professional understanding of the field.
CHAKRABARTI: You know, there’s another part of the … law, I should say, specifically because you had mentioned again, the boards that would have increased power in Florida. There’s actually quite a large section, Section six, talking about creating at least one center for classical and civic education. Whose purpose would be to teach the ideas, traditions and texts that form the foundations of Western and American civilization.
And it goes on to say they would educate students in core texts and great debates of Western civilization and the great books. They would also say provide programing and training related to civic education, which is in dire need in this country, and the values of open inquiry and civil discourse through lower and higher ed in the United States. I mean, looking at that, it doesn’t sound terribly objectionable. I mean, teaching civic discourse and civic education and responsible leadership and informed citizenship, these are all actually things that I think many people would like to be brought into classrooms. Do you have concerns about even this section of the law?
McLEAN: I do. Not because, as you say, in the abstract civic engagement, civic and understanding sort of great debates and being able to make arguments is an absolutely critical set of skills for all Americans. And we are in dire need of that. However, the way that they are framing it, the amount of time that they are using to describe what constitutes the foundations of our democracy are extremely problematic. Because when they talk about the foundations of Western civilization, they are talking about a very particular set of pieces of that foundation and written by a very particular set of individuals.
And it does not recognize the historical context in which they were written, or the other members of the communities or communities that were involved in the development of those ideas. Moreover, I think it’s very important to have a sense of a broader sense of history, especially global history, when understanding our own sort of democratic foundations or our own ideals as a country. Because those foundations come from other parts of the world and have very important contrasts to other parts of the world. And we cannot understand our own country. We cannot understand our own political system without understanding those in other parts of the world.
CHAKRABARTI: You know, it seems like you’re describing the difference between what’s written in the letter of the law versus the intent. Because as I read the letter of the law, its vagueness is quite baked in. There’s no specific definition of what would entail a teaching civic discourse or Western civilization, but it’s not written there, what that means. So, you know, the things that you described of what people might want it to mean, that’s the difference between what’s written versus intent.
But getting back, we just got about a minute left here. I want to learn from history. I take your point about not really expressly calling this moment a fascist moment in the United States, but I’d like to learn what happened in Italy as Mussolini expanded his influence into education under his fascist regime. What was the outcome of that?
McLEAN: Well, there were a number of outcomes. The first is that as he expanded his rule over the 1920s, he was not immediately a dictator. He was, in fact, invited to be prime minister of Italy in 1922. It was only towards the end of the 1920s that he had gained total control over the government. But by then he also had a significant control over the education system that included also extracurricular activities, organizations that were essentially the Italian Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
The ideas he was able to inculcate in the students allowed for an immense amount of popularity for when the fascist regime invaded Ethiopia in 1935. And be quiet when they developed increasingly rigid racial laws in ’36, ’37, ’38 and not fight back, frankly, until they were well into World War II.
CHAKRABARTI: But we’re not at that point in the United States, are we?
McLEAN: Oh no. And hopefully never will be.
Scientific American: “Fascism’s History Offers Lessons about Today’s Attacks on Education” — “Public education has long been a battlefield in the U.S., from the Scopes trial to desegregation to climate change. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s recent demands for greater control over public education—and students’ bodies—in the guise of “parent’s rights” accelerates this conflict, rejecting the importance of learning as a public good in itself in favor of promoting conformity and uncritical thinking.”
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