In my senior Southern Literature class, I’m about to teach Go Down, Moses, William Faulkner’s great novel about how racism has warped America. I ask my students to think about the stories Faulkner tells: the dispossession of the Chickasaw people, the enslaved woman who drowns herself in despair, and the white family struggling to accept that the admired patriarch who built their Mississippi cotton kingdom also raped his own daughter. Here at Florida State University, in the capital city of the third state to join the Confederacy, I ask them to consider the ways our troubled past haunts our precarious present. I start writing dates on the board—1619, 1830, 1863—and I wonder if somebody will accuse me of breaking Florida law.
Governor Ron DeSantis sees Florida’s colleges and universities as hotbeds of trendy theories, where professors delight in propagating Marxism, pushing anti-racism, and undermining traditional gender identity. He likes to say he puts on “the full armor of God” to fight “wokeism” and create a “patriotic” education system. To that end, Florida has banned the teaching of what DeSantis declares erroneous doctrine, especially critical race theory and “The 1619 Project.” Both challenge our happier myths: that the Founding Fathers hated slavery even though they owned slaves, or that rugged individualism enables anyone to succeed if they just work hard enough. DeSantis doesn’t want Florida schools to explore how the legacy of slavery still casts a structural shadow on our democracy; to examine white privilege; or, as the “Stop WOKE Act” he pushed through our supine legislature puts it, to instruct students in topics that might cause “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” on account of their race. A federal judge has temporarily halted the law’s implementation, but the state has a good chance of winning on appeal to the Eleventh Circuit, which is dominated by Donald Trump appointees.
Whatever happens in the courts, academic liberty in the state that DeSantis calls the “freest” in America has already been damaged. Professors now add careful, lawyerly language to our course descriptions. The syllabus for a fall 2022 University of Florida seminar on how Black artists use the Gothic to explore racial oppression states, “No lesson is intended to espouse, promote, advance, inculcate, or compel a particular feeling, perception, or belief.” I remind students that I do not judge them on their opinions, only on how they support those opinions with facts and evidence. Academics in less protected positions sometimes feel pressured to censor themselves. As The Atlantic and ProPublica reported, Jonathan Cox, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Central Florida, canceled two popular courses examining race, ethnicity, and “the myth of a color-blind society,” because he worried he could lose his job.
Nervous administrators issue memos trying to reassure faculty, even as they promise our government masters that we’ll play nice. The University of Florida has produced a slideshow warning that if instructors offend against state edicts, UF could suffer “large financial penalties”—perhaps tens of millions of dollars cut from its annual appropriation. Janet Kistner, the vice president for faculty development and advancement at FSU, sent out a memo telling us that we can’t try to force our students “to believe any … ‘specified concepts’ (each based on race, color, sex, or national origin) because such action would be per se discriminatory under the amended statute.”
In other words, we must not upset conservative white folks. More important, we must not upset DeSantis, who has many allies in his war to bring offending institutions to heel. The presidents of Florida’s community colleges recently signed a statement supporting DeSantis’s education crusade and denouncing critical race theory. The people who rule Florida’s universities are also committed to implementing the governor’s vision. The University of Florida’s Board of Trustees, a third of whom are major DeSantis campaign donors, are dismissive of academic freedom. When the University of Florida denied three political scientists permission to testify as expert witnesses in a case challenging the state’s voting restrictions, the political scientists—raised hell. UF Trustees Chairman Mori Hosseini expressed his displeasure with them, calling them “disrespectful,” and threatened “our legislators are not going to put up with the wasting of state money.”
Last month, DeSantis launched his most ambitious attack yet: a top-down assault on the state’s only liberal-arts college. Students say they love New College of Florida, which one described as “quirky, queer and creative.” There’s no football team; there are no sororities and fraternities. Instead of grades, students receive written evaluations. Classes include the very traditional—Homeric Greek, Introduction to Statistics, U.S. Constitutional Law—and ones guaranteed to tie the governor’s amygdala in knots: “Postcolonial Literature and Theory,” “Death, Hell, and Capitalism.” Well-known New College graduates include former Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart; the mathematician William Thurston, who won the Fields Medal; X González, the Parkland shooting survivor and gun-control activist; and Derek Black, the son of the Stormfront founder Don Black and the godson of the Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Derek Black credits New College with educating him away from white supremacy.
Not a bad record. But DeSantis means to junk New College’s longtime commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and turn it into the Hillsdale of the South. Hillsdale is a very white, very conservative Christian school in Michigan. Last year, a Hillsdale professor gave a lecture at a small Catholic college titled “Black Privilege and Racial Hysteria in Contemporary America.” Hillsdale President Larry Arnn cultivates and flatters DeSantis, and has called him “one of the most important people living.” DeSantis has returned the compliment: Hillsdale currently exercises a hefty influence on Florida education with affiliated K–12 charter schools, and Hillsdale “reviewers” helped scour Florida classroom materials for hints of critical race theory like 16th-century Vatican operatives scrutinizing books for signs of heliocentrism, humanism, and other heresies.
In his haste to remake New College, the governor has appointed six new trustees, all out-and-proud conservatives with a deep distrust of mainstream academia. One is a Christian-school superintendent who has suggested that a COVID vaccine may have caused the Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s on-field heart attack. Another is the former executive director of the 1776 Commission, Trump’s attempt to whitewash American history, and a professor at Hillsdale. A third was also a member of the 1776 Commission and is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank. The most prominent of the New College new brooms is Christopher Rufo, who says the campus is “notoriously left-wing,” rife with noisome diversity initiatives and LGBTQ-tolerant policies. Rufo, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, is a tireless campaigner against what he sees as the dangers of anti-racism and Drag Queen Story Hour, as well as the chief instigator of the moral panic over critical race theory, which he calls “an existential threat to the United States.”
Just this week, the trustees fired New College’s president and installed the former state education commissioner Richard Corcoran as interim president. Corcoran has made his position clear. Education, he told the 2021 Hillsdale National Leadership Seminar, is “100 percent ideological,” and he has declared, “Education is our sword. That’s our weapon.”
New College students have staged protests, and parents are angry. Sonia Howman emailed me after I appeared on a public-television news program defending higher education in Florida. Her son, a “biracial, LGBT student at New College,” flourishes there: “I have watched my child progress from a smart, compassionate, bullied and withdrawn child into a smart, compassionate, intellectually voraciously curious and confident young man. His experience at New College has been nothing short of a blessing.” Another parent wrote in USA Today that she worries her daughter will be “collateral damage in DeSantis’ potential race to the White House.” She points out that Hillsdale refuses federal money on the grounds of freedom, wanting “the government to keep its hands off their campus.” She says, “My daughter and her bright, intellectually curious peers only ask that DeSantis keep his hands off theirs.”
To the extent that the war over wokeness has real substance, it’s a conflict between those who give primacy to systems in trying to understand American society, and those who think that approach devalues the role of the individual. Indeed, the DeSantis administration defines woke as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society.” The counterfactual is, to me, a little ridiculous: You cannot examine the disproportionate prison terms given to Black offenders in our criminal-justice system and seriously claim that the law is unaffected by race. But what’s relevant here is not my (informed) opinion—it’s that I should be allowed to have one. Educators must have the liberty to put forth ideas that might annoy the powerful.
The governor says higher education should be about “the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of trendy ideologies.” I happen to agree with that, and so does every professor I know. Presenting various, often contradictory, ideas is our job. We are experts in our fields; we’ve studied our subjects for years. Does the state Board of Education really think it’s qualified to judge a class on women’s role in the Byzantine empire or the poets of the Harlem Renaissance? DeSantis isn’t trying to expunge ideology from education, only ideologies he dislikes, ones that see racism as woven through American institutions or that emphasize diversity, equity, and inclusion instead of merit and color-blindness.
Academics are not, of course, free of ideology. Our worldview necessarily shapes our pedagogy, research, and writing. But professors are not in the brainwashing business, either. We want our students to question authority, including—maybe especially—ours. If I suggest to my class that Moby-Dick is obsessed with Blackness and whiteness, explores interracial same-sex relationships, and is my pick for greatest American novel, I hope they won’t simply take my word for it. Mostly they don’t. They argue with me. I’ve never had an undergraduate complain of debilitating guilt over slavery after reading Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I’ve had them feel disgust and anger and sorrow that our institutions, from banks to courts to schools, still struggle to deal with racism. DeSantis might see this as critical race theory. I call it critical thinking. Teaching how to assess information and draw conclusions isn’t “indoctrination.”
I have some hope that this hostile takeover of education will fail in the end. Intellectually curious young people are not good candidates for indoctrination—from the left or the right. In my email exchange with Sophia Brown, a New College English major and an editor of the Catalyst, the campus newspaper, she made clear to me she rejects the idea that “a student’s education should be molded to fit a particular political agenda.” She told me she particularly appreciates the way faculty create an environment that “encourages students to form their own arguments and draw their own conclusions, instead of just regurgitating the information they’re given.” She says the college “allows students to create their own arguments based off of the material they’ve learned throughout the semester,” and adds, “I do not believe that it is the government’s role to restrict which voices should be listened to or learned from.”
At the University of Central Florida, Jonathan Cox’s students are also unimpressed with the state’s attempted control of the curriculum. He told me, “They’re angry. They don’t understand why they’re being told what they can and can’t learn.”
I suspect that much of DeSantis’s pious railing against critical race theory is political theater, bread and circuses to inflame his nationalist base for 2024. After all, he survived the liberal fleshpots of Yale and Harvard Law without being corrupted by lefty politics. Perhaps he feels he’s stronger-minded than Florida undergraduates. In any case, he has recruited a posse of true believers who have pledged to tear down schools and colleges and build their flag-waving fantasy of America on the rubble.
America’s history is complicated, a struggle between fine ideals and real shortcomings, punctuated by successes we can all be proud of. Our literature represents those complications, triumphant, hateful, moving, and contradictory. Faulkner lived in an antebellum mansion, waited on by Black servants, yet his greatest novels explode the cruelty of America’s long racism and inbuilt inequalities. Smart students like mine, and like the ones at New College, can handle paradox. I plan to carry on teaching the way I always have, resisting the state’s decrees. The point of education is to produce not just pliant cogs but thinking citizens with knowledge of the rich and expansive ways to be human. That is genuine freedom.
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