Whenever I watch coverage of the 2024 race for U.S. President—on one of the networks or PBS or CNN, for example—I hear lots of coverage of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s political prospects, but I almost never hear about DeSantis’s dangerous policies that shape K-12 public education or his reprehensible plans and proposed legislation to “reform” Florida’s colleges and universities.
I have been encouraged by growing coverage in recent weeks in the NY Times and the Washington Post (here, here, and here, for example), but the relative absence of reporting in the national political press about Ron DeSantis’s philosophy of education worries me. Is it because public school policy and funding, whether at the K-12 level or in higher education, is primarily under the purview of governors and state legislatures, a realm of policy to which national political reporters pay little attention? Or is it because reporters, like many of the rest of us, take public schooling and the large state university systems for granted as stable institutions too large and entrenched to be undermined by a national presidential election?
Last week this blog covered DeSantis’s rapid restructure of one of Florida’s universities, his bigger plans threatening academic freedom across all of Florida’s state universities, and DeSantis’s seemingly successfully demand that the College Board change the proposed curriculum for a new AP class in African American Studies. The College Board claims, of course, that it has not capitulated to DeSantis’s attempt shape the AP course according to his political biases, but last Thursday the NY Times confirmed what we had all suspected: “While the College Board was developing its first Advanced Placement course in African American studies, the group was in repeated contact with the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, often discussing course concepts that the state said it found objectionable, a newly released letter shows.” Yesterday, the NY Times added important details about these conversations.
In an in-depth report last week published by Vanity Fair, investigative reporter Kathryn Joyce explored DeSantis’s recently announced plans for Florida’s colleges and universities. Joyce presents more details about the campaign of DeSantis’s newly appointed trustee at the New College of Florida, Christopher Rufo, a Manhattan Institute fellow and also now a dean at Michigan’s conservative Christian Hillsdale College. Joyce quotes Rufo, who seems to top his previous right-wing rhetoric every time he opens his mouth. Soon after he was appointed trustee at Florida’s New College, “Rufo immediately began speaking in martial terms: that conservatives were ‘recapturing higher education,’ mounting a ‘landing team’ to survey the school as well as a ‘hostage rescue operation’ to ‘liberate’ it from ‘cultural hostage takers.'”
Joyce highlights Rufo’s own description of what he calls his “theory of action”: “(H)e called on state legislators to use their budgetary power to reshape public institutions, including higher education. ‘We have to get out of this idea that somehow a public university system is a totally independent entity that practices academic freedom—a total fraud, that’s just a false statement, fundamentally false—and that you can’t touch it or else you’re impinging on the rights of the gender studies department to follow their dreams…. What the public giveth, the public can taketh away.'” Rufo believes: “(S)tates should defund diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and find creative ways to undermine university departments perceived as too liberal, like changing state teacher accreditation laws as a means of rendering teachers colleges irrelevant… Rufo advised state legislators to fund the creation of new, independently-governed ‘conservative centers’ within flagship public universities to attract conservative professors, create new academic tracks, and serve as a ‘separate patronage system’ for the right.”
Joyce adds that DeSantis and his followers in Florida have already followed Rufo’s advice by establishing within the state’s public universities privately funded conservative centers: “Florida already has several, including a politics institute at Florida State; the Adam Smith Center for the Study of Economic Freedom at Florida International University; and the University of Florida’s freshly-approved Hamilton Center for Classical and Civics Education, dedicated to ‘the ideas, traditions, and texts that form the foundations of western and American civilization,’ and tasked with helping create anti-communist content for Florida’s new K-12 civics curricula.”
Joyce reports that DeSantis is moving quickly to implement his extremist plans: “Several hours before last week’s New College board meeting, DeSantis… (announced) a suite of plans to reform higher education, including defunding all diversity programs at public universities and requiring them to instead teach a core curriculum focused on Western civilization, further eroding the protections of faculty tenure, bolstering University of Florida’s conservative institutes with even more funding and autonomy from university administrators, and transferring hiring authority from faculty committees to college presidents and the trustees who appoint them. In the same speech, DeSantis pledged an initial $15 million dollars to New College for immediate faculty recruitment and student scholarships, and an additional $10 million annually—money he suggested would not just attract the right sort of professors and students, but also new private donors.”
With the help of Christopher Rufo and other far-right extremists, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis threatens not only the abstract concept of academic freedom at the New College of Florida and other Florida state universities, but also more broadly the whole idea of public schools and universities forming citizens prepared for active participation in a democratic society.
For some help to define what we all lose when political demagogues try to prescribe schooling to protect particular political constituencies and attract funders, we can turn to a wonderful classic, Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, by Walter Feinberg, emeritus professor of the philosophy of education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Feinberg believes that public schools play an essential role for forming citizens when the schools are a site of mutual respect—a setting that protects the rights of students to find their voices, to listen to and appreciate the voices and experiences of others, and to grasp their responsibility as citizens for protecting not only their individual needs and preferences but also others’ needs in the public policies of our democratic society:
“To be an American, that is, to submit to the nation’s laws, is different than to identify oneself as an American and to participate in the public will formations that determine the direction of national action and inaction. This identification is active and requires an engagement with interpretations of events that comprise the American story. That there is an ‘American story’ means not that there is one official understanding of the American experience but, rather, that those who are telling their versions of the story are doing so in order to contribute to better decision making on the part of the American nation and that they understand that they are part of those decisions. The concept is really ‘Americans’ stories.’” (Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, p. 232) (emphasis in the original)
Feinberg recognizes that as societies evolve, what is essential is a public school system where the curriculum is insulated from politics: “The identity of multicultural nations such as the United States is defined in part through their role in maintaining existing avenues of association and in developing those through which new individual and cultural alignments can emerge… This requires that schools provide opportunities for children to experience the values found in other cultural groups and in competing conceptions of the good life… In order to consider issues on their own merits students need to have available the range of alternatives that acquaintance with different ways of life entails, and in order to be able to choose from different conceptions of the good, students need to be able to consider evidence that may be uncomfortable for the prevailing authority in their own community… The formation of a public sphere occurs in fragments, here and there, but it does not happen accidentally. The need to attend to the conditions for its creation is an important reason for public education.” (Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, pp. 236-238)
Feinberg concludes: (T)he common school must be involved in teaching students both to speak from the knowledge that their cultural identity provides and, as audience, to hear the voices of others… Learning to express the concerns and values that arise from one’s own standpoint in a way that is available to people from other standpoints is clearly one of the avenues for the evolution of new forms of affiliation and association that the liberal multicultural nation stands to protect and that constitutes an important component of its moral identity. It is within and across this medley of difference that the common school continues the dialogue begun during the American Revolution about the nature of national unity and the character of national identity. (Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, p, 245)