Ron DeSantis Doesn’t Believe in Democratic Education
Ron DeSantis’s efforts to make Florida’s classrooms more conservative have been well documented and rightfully criticized. There was last year’s “Stop WOKE Act,” then the planned conservative takeover of the New College of Florida, and soon after, the state’s decision not to teach AP African American Studies. Most recently, state legislators introduced Florida House Bill 999, which would invest many of the governor’s talking points on education with the force of law by “limiting diversity efforts, vastly expanding the powers of university boards and altering course offerings” in the state’s public postsecondary institutions. DeSantis has certainly shown no qualms about treating Florida’s schools as a battleground in an ideological war.
As a high school English teacher for the last fifteen years, I think about these kinds of things a great deal. Two experiences in particular have formed my thoughts on the intersection of education and ideology. Both occurred around the same time—the mid-2000s in Montana, where I was studying for an M.A. in literature.
The first was the cultural dissonance I experienced as cradle Catholic among students and scholars who, not surprisingly in a graduate program in literature, were quite liberal. Though I got along swimmingly with my fellow students and professors, only a small handful of them practiced a religious faith. Classes involved reading lists that drew heavily from gender theory, queer theory, Marxism, deconstruction, and like. Some professors were more closed-minded than others, but let’s just say that in class conversation generally, I wasn’t inclined to admit that I had at any time in my life, even if only fleetingly, considered voting for a Republican.
But while I often felt out of place culturally, I enjoyed going to poetry readings, drinking PBR at hipster parties, and studying Julia Kristeva and Paulo Freire alongside Shakespeare and Faulkner. Conversations in class were often one-sided, but they were not managed by any kind of authoritative figure—the spirit of the academic environment invited participants to bring their best arguments to the table and to listen to those of others with the hopes of understanding them.
The other experience occurred around the same time. During the M.A. program, I worked on the side as a tutor for a homeschooled high school senior in English. He was from a very conservative and very Catholic family. I cringed a little when I saw the curriculum, which treated everything written after about 1930 as godless and modern (pejoratives in those circles), but books were books, and I enjoyed reading Dickens and Shakespeare with him and helping him through some papers.
Like many high school students, he had to write a thesis paper to graduate from the homeschool program. The specific task was an argumentative research essay. I recalled my own experience with this type of assignment: the process of deciding on a topic I was interested in, the attempt to approach my subject with an open mind, the notecards I filled with research, and the effort I put into working logically toward a conclusion. Papers like this can be drudgery, but at their best, they foster a spirit of truth-seeking and civic exchange: Students are encouraged to care about a topic, consider opposing points of view, think carefully, and ultimately produce a piece of their own knowledge—a point of view they haven’t been provided, but have developed for themselves, and can in turn offer to their peers to consider. I looked forward to giving him some pointers along the way.
But I soon found out that my student’s curriculum did not allow him to choose his own topic. It did not even allow him to choose his own argument—the homeschool program provided all its students with an identical pre-written thesis statement, which they were then instructed to copy verbatim into the first paragraph of their final paper. The thesis went something like this: The Roe v. Wade decision was both unethical and unconstitutional and should therefore be overturned. It was the students’ job to pick up this baton and run a set course with it, drawing upon legal decisions and political philosophy specified by the curriculum itself to provide support for the predetermined conclusion.
My disbelief soon gave way to anger. I, too, considered myself pro-life, but I was incredulous that that belief—any belief, really—would be used to justify this infantilizing treatment of a capable high school senior. Looking back on it now, this was my first conscious encounter with programmatic ideology in an educational setting, my experience in graduate school notwithstanding. The idea that my student’s homeschool curriculum was designed to dogmatically advance ended up disfiguring the proper relationship between curriculum and student. Not only was it blatant indoctrination, but it could also probably be construed as a form of plagiarism—albeit one designed by Kafka or Orwell, where a student must lift just the right ideas from just the right sources and pass them off as his or her own sincere opinions. I helped my student with the paper, but it tore me up inside. It still bothers me to this day.
In graduate school, I saw up close the predominance of progressive politics and “intersectionality,” an erstwhile academic term of art that has become a much larger cultural shibboleth, in the university setting. In many ways—ironically, given its commitment to diversity—my program was a homogeneous environment to learn in. Even so, I would choose it without hesitation over the bleak paradigm that gave rise to the homeschool research-paper edict. The department was very liberal, but by and large, the professors treated my arguments on their own merits, encouraged me to read widely and think deeply, and helped me both pursue my own interests and better articulate what I had to say about them. Though academic communities of like-minded individuals can skew toward cultish conformity (as even some progressives acknowledge), mine did not: Though culturally lopsided, the atmosphere was not coercive. That would have made it, in a word, unacademic.
How does one go about banning an idea from a place where ideas are meant to be explored, examined, and critiqued? DeSantis’s efforts are bound to fail, of course, if success is measured by anything resembling the academic standards of open inquiry, the pursuit of truth, and reasoned debate. But political success is another matter entirely. DeSantis is using the Trump playbook, which means the goalposts are movable, the better to suit those who wield the power.
An overlooked question in the debate about Florida’s new approach to education is what legislation like the “Stop WOKE Act” and Bill 999, which have so much to say about the minutiae of what occurs in the state’s classrooms, will mean for its students. The text of the first bill enumerates eight forbidden beliefs associated with the acknowledgement of structural racism that cannot be taught in public schools; while it allows for the “discussion of the concepts,” it prohibits educators from “indoctrinating” or “persuading” students of their veracity.
What if a student brings up the ideas of Ibram X. Kendi, almost certainly verboten according to the bill’s index, during a class discussion? Or even those of James Baldwin or Martin Luther King Jr., some of which might be similarly proscribed? Will teachers be in violation of the law if they fail to balance out the conversations with opposing views? Or if they don’t shut down such discussions if the renegade student proves to be successful at persuading the rest of the class? (The ambiguities at play in the act likely mean that its enforcers will have the power to bring the law to bear on a case-by-case basis as they see fit, further chilling the educational environment.)
The bill fails to distinguish between teaching and indoctrinating, as if the good humanities teachers convince their students of the right ideas, while the bad teachers convince their students of the wrong ones. There is no room here for conceiving of the teacher’s role in a democratic way—as one who helps students develop their own ideas. As a high school English teacher, I might very well read an essay that argues that Toni Morrison’s classic American novel Beloved challenges the notion that racism is limited to individual actions at the time they were committed. This argument, a natural one to make from the text, would directly run afoul of prohibited item #7 in the Stop WOKE Act, meaning it’s one I would be barred from presenting to my class were I a teacher at a public school in the state:
An individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.
And while the Florida law does not directly address hypothetical encounters between teacher and student of the sort I’ve posed here, it does suggest that my job would not be to encourage the student if he or she decided to pursue that particular idea in the context of that particular book. But that is my job, regardless of whether I agree with the student’s argument. An English teacher is called to help a student ground his or her own claims firmly in a text and craft a larger argument in a persuasive, thoughtful manner. Though I have a duty to ensure that my students express their ideas in a properly academic fashion, grounded in fact and avoiding emotional extremes, ultimately it is not my business to dictate what they think, but instead to help them think more deeply about what they read. And it is this approach to teaching, rather than one that takes its core task to be conveying state-approved truths, that is capable of preparing students for the privileges and responsibilities of democratic citizenship.
That is the marquee-level purpose of public education in American society. But what kind of society is DeSantis’s curriculum intended to foster? While the recent Florida House Bill 999 emphasizes the need for public postsecondary institutions to teach American founding principles such as “individual rights, constitutionalism, separation of powers, and federalism,” among others, there is no instance of the word “democracy” or its variations in the entire 23-page bill. Instead, the bill insists—three times—that it promotes “education for citizenship of the constitutional republic,” reinforcing the selective reading of our nation’s founding, popular among conservatives, that we are “not a democracy, but a republic.” House Bill 999 concerns public colleges, not secondary schools, but it shares a pedagogy with the Stop Woke Act (whose scope, for now, is limited to K-12 schools, thanks to a November court ruling). That pedagogy, as I’ve tried to make clear, does not aim to help students think for themselves. After all, why bother with that if minority rule, rather than democracy, is the goal?
The high school English classroom is an incubator. It’s a place where students should be invited to try on an idea for size, discover its strengths and weakness, put it down if it doesn’t seem to fit, and maybe revisit it later. It’s Socratic in nature; the learning process undertaken by students is at least as important as the knowledge that results, and sometimes it is simply more important. A classroom is not K Street, and it is certainly not an arena for Twitter-fueled political scrimmaging. Perhaps if we paid more attention to the student experience, we might look past our desire to “win” and reflect, even if only for a moment, on what—and whom—education is actually for.