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.