West Palm Beach, FL. Florida is always somewhat on the fringe. The state is a geographic corner of the country and some of it seems barely habitable (for humans, it’s perfect for alligators and really big snakes). Florida also seems fringe if you watch the news. “Florida Man” never disappoints. We don’t really mind. But Florida is on the frontier of something else with regard to education, and it’s not nearly as amusing. I was recently asked: “Oh, you teach history? Do they let you teach all of it?” If only that was just a joke or something easily shrugged off. It’s actually a fair question these days.
Florida legislation has lately put normal classroom practice in peril. Last year two pieces of state legislation garnered some national addition. One was the so-called “don’t say gay” bill and the other the so-called “don’t say woke” bill. Neither actually forbids the words “gay” or “woke.” The first prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity below grade three and has so far also been interpreted as a prohibition on discussing homosexuality at all. The second bill doesn’t prohibit the use of the word “woke,” but it does ban anything that would cause an individual to “feel guilt or anguish because of their race or sex,” among other things. Both of these bills are portrayed by DeSantis and the state legislature as a crusade against wokeness and CRT and a defense of parental rights.
Why are people so worked up? It’s understandable that many parents wouldn’t want their second graders learning about sexual orientation, but there is little evidence that K-3 teachers were in fact teaching about gender identity. And it’s very doubtful that CRT and “wokeness” has infiltrated much of Florida K-12. One issue lies with the legislation itself. The state has made infractions a felony for teachers but has failed to provide almost any guidelines. Consider this: the “don’t say woke” bill doesn’t make it illegal to talk about slavery or the Civil War or have a classroom library, but if certain discussions or books could cause “guilt or anguish”—which they easily could—some schools have decided it’s safer to avoid those subjects. Many schools have genuinely removed books from the classroom and others continue to do so.
Some people, especially fans outside of the state, think that everyone on the ground must be overreacting. Will teachers really become felons for having certain books in their classrooms or acknowledging that a child has gay parents? Well, several of the people recently prosecuted for illegal voting as felons were told by the state that they had the right to vote when they inquired and registered, after a Florida constitutional amendment to expand voting to many former felons. In March 2023, the state legislature is out to ban the Democratic party—seriously. There have been some big “gotcha” moments in the last couple years. Is the state actually out to change education? Well, they’ve already started banning math books because of these issues. Now they want the College Board to rewrite A.P. African American history to suit state legislators. Some see that as a specific situation relating to the College Board, but it is still concerning in the context of the ongoing narrative.
The story doesn’t end with K-12; it continues into higher education. Here, too, the state legislature and Ron DeSantis are dissatisfied with the way things are. In February 2023, House Bill 999 was advanced, which will limit university classroom teaching and discussion. It’s notable that FIRE is drawing attention to the situation, as they so often report on threats to conservative speech. FIRE correctly recognizes that limits on campus speech are a problem, regardless of party of origin. The state legislature also wants general education U.S. history to be rewritten. It will eliminate and preclude some majors and minors. It also prohibits any “unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content.” So much for Florida’s well-regarded and excellent research universities. There’s certainly a lot of evidence to suggest that negative changes are in store for our students on all levels.
As exasperating as the situation is, it can still be a struggle to make others believe it is real. So many people are so accustomed to media hype or exaggeration that they simply cannot or will not believe that anything serious is happening. As long as DeSantis claims to be fighting “woke-ism” and standing up for parents and traditional values, a distressing number of people believe him and support him.
What is going on? For one thing, Americans of all stripes are unbelievably susceptible to rhetoric. It was 1961 when John Howard Griffin’s book Black Like Me was first published. He was a white writer who dyed his skin and went “undercover” to learn about the black experience. He was surprised to learn about the extent of hardship for black Americans and to learn some truths about white Americans. Howard Griffin was also surprised, once he saw things more clearly, how successful opponents of the Civil Rights movement were when they just called this movement “communist” or anti-Christian. People didn’t look into the matter for themselves; the label was enough to scare them off.
The issue we’re facing is that some people are so antagonistic to the other party that they don’t question anything pitched as opposing the other side. I live in Florida and almost every day I see some kind of “FJB” sticker or sign. For a year after the 2020 election, people stood on a highway overpass once a week with flags and signs in support of Trump, some of them quite profane. Last week I saw a sticker on a car, “Just a regular mom, trying not to raise liberals.” People have their views, so be it. Certainly there are blue states that have the partisan bug just as bad. But the result of such negative partisanship in either case is failure to think through what we’re being sold. You can try to talk to some people about the classroom book situation and their only response is “don’t we have to stop CRT?” Once the “anti-woke” label got attached to this legislation, lots of people were essentially committed to not thinking about it at all. It was obviously ok.
The issue isn’t just one person. The problem with America is not DeSantis or Biden, it’s our national refusal to see beyond the surface of things. We have picked our causes and identified our issues and now too many of us will accept nearly anything that is packaged in a way that is pleasing to us. We don’t bother to read the ingredients on the back. Let’s not support legislation that offers extreme enforcement without guidelines and without any guarantee of objective evaluation. It’s silly to do otherwise.
Of course, this is exactly why we need traditional education. We genuinely need courses in rhetoric. Plenty of the people who are worried about “wokeism” don’t actually want classrooms without books. They may not want one-party states, either. But many conservatives have been conditioned to believe that threats to free speech only come from the left. If we keep buying into labels and fears, we will only see more of this kind of legislation. The need for genuine wide-ranging exploration of ideas, especially in college, and reasonable classroom instruction, especially in K-12, could not be greater.
If some people are too trusting of political rhetoric, some politicians are too tempted by power and don’t consider the consequences of precedent. Some states are essentially always blue. Some are almost always red. Right now, Republicans control the Florida state legislature and the governor’s office. They are making the most of it and making names for themselves nationally.
In the last few years, Florida has been very heavy-handed with rules and legislation relating to schools. Rather than let counties or school districts decide their own mask policy, the governor issued an executive order in 2021 that would withhold funds from schools that had mask mandates or mask policies in conflict with the governor’s office. DeSantis also famously told students voluntarily wearing masks to remove them at a public event. Many of the executive orders and much of the legislation has been framed as a defense of “parental rights,” but in these circumstances, parents are not at all empowered. The school board doesn’t get to make decisions. The power is held by the state and its politicians. This centralization of authority is no different from the states where state-level Democratic politicians overruled the COVID policies of Republican-controlled counties.
In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote about the tyranny of the majority. He warned against the temptation to legislate what ought to be left to conscience. He also argued that people should be free to express many different opinions. According to Mill, even good opinions would be weak if they were not worked through with public reasoning and debate. Society advances by having real individuals and all kinds of opinions.
The current approach to governance in Florida is incredibly centralized and top-down. Rather than empowering communities or campuses to make their own decisions, important choices are dictated from above. What kind of precedent is this establishing? What will happen when the political tide turns? Will people want state legislators–politicians–to decide what is history then? Even if you agree with all of DeSantis’ positions, will you welcome this approach when the other party is in power? Seasons change, populations alter, political power comes and goes. Will we normalize a style of governance that could be used against the current majority when they are in the minority?
As politicians grasp at power, it’s important for voters to remember the value of decentralized authority, regardless of who the authorities are. For many years now, we hear a lot about 1984 whenever someone is really distressed about society and thinking things are getting dystopian. People talk about “rewriting history books” and “Big Brother.” Unfortunately, some people seem to have missed part of the message. Some people don’t seem to mind “Big Brother” if it’s the right brother. They are fine with rewriting history. We don’t have to go into Room 101 to turn out that way, either; we just need a promise that our political opponents will go into that room.
Another truth is that education is an easy target. In some corners, K-12 public schools are simply viewed as being a shambles. If the goal is to weaken them and/or get students out of them, no one worries much about legislation that harms them. Some people seem out to undermine and then eliminate public education. It is especially easy for conservative politicians to go after higher ed because it is often associated with liberals and because students lack political and financial power. Yet it’s also very true today that higher education, in general, is undervalued by politicians of both major parties.
We have built the best universities in the world. Eight of the top ten universities in the world are in the United States. Lest you think that is all self-ranking, look into the numbers of international students seeking admission into our universities. Our universities have contributed to all kinds of developments in science and technology. To give just two examples, they contributed to the development of the internet and to some of today’s top Alzheimer’s research. Our system of higher education is both imperfect and incredible.
Yet we have convinced ourselves that we can’t afford the excellence we have created. State legislatures continue to reduce funding to state universities, despite the track record of positive outcomes for students. Some politicians want to charge students more for “impractical” majors. A few years ago, Congress had to be talked out of taxing graduate student tuition waivers. We are like people treating our own vehicles as rentals. We won’t be returning these schools and students after the weekend; we will be living alongside them and their graduates for life.
As Marilynne Robinson has already asked, “What are we doing here?” This country has been a “grand experiment,” with universities in all of our states fostering the study of all kinds of things. The results have been amazing. We have a wealthy and powerful country and have a history of a well-educated populace. And yet “a great irony is at work in our historical moment. We are being encouraged to abandon our most distinctive heritage—in the name of self-preservation.” Politicians, of both parties, not infrequently speak out against “impractical” majors. They suggest that we should only offer, and students should only take, courses that can be tied to careers. Apparently no one can afford to study the humanities or ponder philosophy.
How is it we can rail against communism and Marxism and simultaneously demand an approach to education that sees our students only as workers? That does not want to teach them to think, but only to work? That teaches them that their identity and value is in their role as workers in our national economy? It should be shocking to us. Why are we making it easier for education to center on job skills than on U.S. history? Are these our children or cogs in the economic machine?
And what about the students themselves? They are, for the most part, American citizens. If K-12 students mostly can’t vote, why do we feel comfortable politicizing their classrooms and subjecting them to textbooks that will change with political cycles? We are not treating students, K-12 or in college, as citizens but as political pawns. It’s easy to do, because they lack power, but they notice. And in higher education, despite the “customer model,” students still often struggle for respect. In far too many circles, parent concerns outweigh student concerns even when students are paying their own tuition. We might ask if students at the New College of Florida wanted the DEI office eliminated. Whether K-12 or college, a traditional American educational objective has been to raise citizens capable of exercising their rights and responsibilities. Let’s not cut the next generation off at the knees.
What about private education? Private K-12 and colleges are neither entirely altered by such legislation nor entirely spared. Private elementary schools are not yet eliminating classroom libraries. Private universities are governed by their own trustees. But private education is not immune to social pressures and a changing political landscape. Private universities can also be affected by partisanship and parents. And even if private schools were entirely independent of partisanship, students should not need private school tuition to get access to books.
According to Ron DeSantis, Florida is “where woke goes to die.” What does he mean by “woke?” DeSantis has called it “the religion of the left” and “a form of cultural Marxism” and part of an agenda to “delegitimize the founding of this country, the principles that the founders relied on, our institutions, our Constitution, to tear basically at the fabric of our society.” Though there are plenty of reasons to contest his definition, let’s consider it at face value.
What would be the opposite of woke? One might suppose that it is something that understands the distinctions between politics and religion. If it is not a form of cultural Marxism, it probably sees our students as more than potential workers, as more than “ideal helots” as Marilynne Robinson would say. It would probably oppose the kind of textbook changing practices and gag orders that characterized the USSR. It would support freedom of speech, which is found in our Constitution. It would support local government, one of our cherished institutions. It would no doubt support education as part of the fabric of our society. None of that, unfortunately, is what we are being offered “where woke goes to die.”
The road signs to get to those realities do not have catchy labels. We do not need crusades for or against “wokeness”—we need people to read actual legislation and weigh in on it. We do not need centralized authorities to make sweeping, political decisions about classrooms and curriculum. We need engaged communities and parents and subject matter experts. We do not need to throw our children to the wolves or shelter them from any possible distress. We need to empower them to be citizens capable of enjoying their rights and fulfilling their civic duties. None of that happens by swinging the political pendulum far to the right or the left or by eliminating opposing ideas or people.
There are those who will think that this essay is overstating the case and exaggerating the risks. Well, as of March 2, 2023, the Florida legislature has introduced a new bill which “would require any blogger writing about government officials to register with the Florida Office of Legislative Services or the Commission on Ethics.” This will certainly be pitched as an attack on “liberal lies” and “wokeness,” but it is a real-time attack on liberty that affects us all. If I was paid for this writing piece, I’d have to register with state officials. If this piece got updated, I’d have to report on it to the government once a month. The freedoms which we cherish must be preserved. Let’s not be caught up by the corrosive hyper-partisanship that seeks to erode our liberties.
Image Credit: University of Florida, Photograph by Wesley Hetrick
Thanks for this. I grew up in Florida in the 90s and am a product of its K-12 public schools. While I went to college out of state, Florida’s public universities were and still are an incredible value at a time of ballooning higher education costs. I worry that the climate you describe will undermine what was once one of the state’s main assets.
Thank you, Elizabeth! Well said, every word.
“The current approach to governance in Florida is incredibly centralized and top-down. Rather than empowering communities or campuses to make their own decisions, important choices are dictated from above. What kind of precedent is this establishing?”
The “in Florida” is completely unnecessary.
Did you write angry screeds against “Common Core”? That was the complete and final death of local control of schools in America. Have you ever criticized California for “banning” school textbooks, which with their size has determined what gets published for decades now?
“Rather than let counties or school districts decide their own mask policy, the governor issued an executive order in 2021 that would withhold funds from schools that had mask mandates or mask policies in conflict with the governor’s office. ”
The man’s an absolute hero, for that even if for nothing else.
Amen about the mask policy!!
Good essay, Elizabeth, I’ve been having some of the same worries, myself. You said: “The problem with America is not DeSantis or Biden, it’s our national refusal to see beyond the surface of things.”
A problem, as I see it, is that in such a context, good faith neutrality (or objectivity, to use a historiographically loaded word) isn’t really an option, which means that universities, like much of the rest of our world, are going to be run by somebody with a superficial view of the world, it’s just a matter of who. I’m therefore increasingly skeptical that “public education” as such can survive. And I teach history at a public university, let it be said.
So what’s the alternative? I’m as reticent as you are, to endorse a narrow-minded tribalism, but who’s the constituency for the alternative? Our students ought to be, of course, but by the time I get them, I’d need years of remedial reading to even make addressing the texts/ideas necessary to form more civic-minded citizens. I’d like to spend more time with my students, addressing the problem of Presentism, very much related to the problems you describe. In one class, get your average students to even understand the problem is about as far as I can get.
Thoughts? I thought maybe a discussion of this issue in the comments might be useful.
“the Florida legislature has introduced a new bill”
One dude introduced a bill, that has zero other supporters as far as I’ve seen.
So yes, you are certainly “overstating the case and exaggerating the risks”, are we allowed to live in reality, or no? Shall we start listing every crazy bill that individual nutters introduce in NY and CA, and see who’s crazier?
But the republican legislature follows the dictates of desantis
His bills are passed….
The endless liberal-conservative tug-of-war over this is never going to be resolved. A flowing faucet of tax money comes with strings attached—like accountability to voters, elected officials, and parents. When one team is in power, the other bristles at this reality and calls it overreach. When their team is in charge, suddenly “overreach” becomes “justice.” The solution to the problem of too much government in your education is to exit government-funded, government-run education. Lots of homeschooling options, private coops, and private schools exist out there, along with a number of colleges that don’t take state or federal money. I wish more people would step away from the territorial battle over this broken system and put more effort toward creating better (private and voluntary) systems.
Good essay, thanks.
I am a retired teacher of American history now living in Florida. I has discussed with many people here their disinclination to reckon with the history of racism in America, They don’t want students to feel “dismay” or “anguish.” But, if they don’t feel that when reading about the Middle Passage of the slave trade, then their parents and churches have failed them in not providing a moral compass for their lives.
Thanks, Elizabeth, for writing the excellent, moderate piece. It was not, as a commenter above inferred, “an angry screed.”
“It was not, as a commenter above inferred, “an angry screed.””
This is a lie. I asked whether she had written angry screeds against Common Core. I neither implied not inferred that she had written one here. You have inferred I did so, but that is your own groundless spin.
A couple interesting things happened in the last few days:
1. Ron De Santis held a press conference demonstrating some of the obscene materials that have been placed in Florida schools in the past few years. And social media banned the broadcast, because of the obscene materials, and Democrats attacked him for sharing pornographic materials. Which, it is to be stressed again, were materials that had been placed there by school boards that you can be assured were approximately 100% Democrats. And yet we’re supposed to believe he’s some awful terrible censor forcing schools to shut down their libraries, because Republicans hate books, or something.
2. A bunch of children at Stanford Law School, and a “DEI dean” (what sort of bizarre title is that?) threw a temper tantrum in order to “protest” a lecture by a visiting judge. Perhaps if more of academia had stood up to this sort of disgraceful and pitiful behavior over the last few decades, there wouldn’t be a push for more active direct political conservative involvement in college adminstration? Instead we get hand-wringing woe-is-me essays about how mean ol’ Gov DeSantis is just for no reason taking over schools, because fascism or something. I’m sure any New College of Florida students who are desperate to go to a school with an active “DEI” administration can find spots at any of the eleventy billion schools that have been infected with such trash.
When every professor, administrator, and student who feels justified in throwing a fit over someone making a speech is ruthlessly purged from every institution of higher learning, then we can talk about keeping politics out of our cherished, noble, pure and unsullied institutions of higher learning, until then, kindly get of the way and let grownups finally try to reinstill some semblance of decency and principle.
One motivation for Common Core was an attempt to ameliorate the disruption of education when parents relocate. For example, US history might be taught in 10th grade in some states, with World history in 11th, while other states would reverse it. So, a kid moving after 10th grade might be stuck getting one course twice and the other not at all.
Yes, that was a stated motivation. And in order to do that essentially all control over curriculum material was removed from teachers and local schools. The cure was far, far worse than the “disease.”
And after several years, is there any sign of the benefits that were promised, as far as kids now having some deeper understanding of math or being better readers? Not that I’ve ever seen even claimed by its proponents. Instead Bill Gates has moved on to his other obsessions.
Thanks, Elizabeth, for a rousing essay that valiantly points fingers all around in order to defuse polarization. I concur with Aaron’s comment that superficiality is a key problem. However, in contrast to Porchers who called your essay as alarmist, I saw it as belated in some ways, such as:
“There’s certainly a lot of evidence to suggest that negative changes are in store for our students on all levels.”
In store = future, but many negative changes have been happening for decades. Read (or reread) “Who Stole Feminism?” written by Christina Hoff Sommers back in 1994. And the Marilynne Robinson essay you cite twice begins with an eye-opening review of book censorship that was common several centuries ago — the USSR didn’t invent it.
Also, education already aimed to train a work force two centuries ago. Read John Taylor Gatto’s “How Hindu Schooling Came To America” about Gov DeWitt Clinton of New York. The notion of teaching kids in grade-level cohorts (in contrast to one-room schoolhouse or homeschooling) was a method suited to large urban populations, implemented by Brits in colonial India. Telling kids to sit in the same spot everyday, arrive on time, etc. predates 20th century industrialization.
Part of the superficiality problem is an abhorrence to make comparisons, which has now practically been institutionalized by wokeness, which dismisses it as “whatabout-ism”. Prime examples include attempts to view slavery globally, by pointing out how common it was: not only white over black, but black over black, white over white (look for the origin of the term Slav in your dictionary), and countless combinations in Asia.
In political terms, we see superficial jump-to-conclusions regarding things like a Cyrillic keyboard being deemed evidence of Russian hacking in 2016, echoed endlessly in the media. But nobody ever asked, “Could it be that China also manipulated in 2016, but less successfully than Russia?”
A key point of your essay that I heartily agree with is the notion of overkill in legislation. However, even clear guidelines have exceptions, which is why we have human judges as well as methods of local flexibility that AI or robots are incapable of applying. And sloppy legislation by elected representatives still strikes me as an improvement over the quasi-dictator use of presidential Executive Orders that have become increasingly frequent this century.