Tag Archives: Ron DeSantis

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Darkness in the Sunshine State

Florida has a problem of preemptive censorship.

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“Students can no longer take sociology to fulfill their core course requirements,    Florida’s state university system ruled on Wednesday.” 

-New York Times, January 28, 2024

At first, I thought I misread the opening sentence of this news article, but unfortunately not. Can the leaders of an American state really be so shortsighted to ban an entire branch of the social sciences? It seems inconceivable that the vast discipline developed from the ideas of intellectual giants like Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Karl Mannheim, George Herbert Mead, and Charles Cooley could be taken out of a core curriculum in a modern university. Yet again, Florida has acted preemptively to muzzle ideas that are deemed too dangerous for students.

At its core, Sociology is the study of people in groups. No one can credibly declare its irrelevance. And the irony here is obvious; Florida’s sad-sack governor is a good example of someone who might have received help from the study of how we connect with others. Even with his limited horizons, the simple-minded charge that the whole of sociology is “woke” is hopelessly shallow and misplaced.

For good reasons, most Americans take offense to the politicization of education. Ideas about human groups fire the imagination and renew the culture. The banning of an introductory course in sociology is especially pitiful because its key ideas are foundational for a number of fields. My own discipline of Communication Studies has shamelessly borrowed some of its best ideas from the fertile minds of 19th Century sociologists. Many of us are still evangelists for the imaginative work of Irving Goffman, Hugh Dalziel Duncan, Todd Gitlin, David Reisman, and others. The window of sociology lets us see how—not if—we are the products of our affiliations, through family, marriage, and the myriad groups and organizations that shape our world. Scores of professional applications are in debt to the sociological perspective, among them: social work, ministerial training, urban planning, social services, prisons and policing, education, and the training of mental health professionals.

Sociology is the study of people in groups. No one can credibly declare its irrelevance. 

Losing the option of an Introduction to Sociology course deprives students of an eye-opening glimpse of its intriguing interconnections. And first courses are often key in helping new students decide on their majors. Given this tight weave of related subjects, I hope that higher education agencies will rethink accrediting schools who have removed sociology from the core curriculum.

                         New College Protests

Florida clearly has a problem with preemptive censorship. We already know that climate change curricula are mostly off the table in the grade school curriculum, as are fair-minded and contemporary approaches to gender, identity, and sex. Books are being locked down for promoting “unhealthy” choices. An original and modest AP course in African American Studies for high schoolers was axed as inappropriate. And diversity, equity and inclusion programs have been banned in state universities. In addition, there was also a very public decapitation of a state liberal arts institution in Sarasota. The Governor and his people controlling the University system thought that New College was “too liberal,” setting off terminations, resignations, and a wave of uncertainty for its students.

At this rate Donald Duck will soon have to be fully clothed if he shows up in the Magic Kingdom. Geologists at the Kennedy Space Center will have to pretend that the solar system is just six thousand years old. And we can imagine a false need to stow away official art considered too degenerate for public display.

Florida is not alone in attempts to purge universities of their academic independence. But it has a penchant for censorship that keeps compounding. Coastal states like Connecticut, New York and New Jersey have begun units on climate change in the schools. By contrast, Florida allows the use of classroom videos dismissing climate concerns. Somehow the state’s public utilities will have to prevaricate even faster to keep up the official delusion that water in the streets of Dade County is coming from broken pipes. Whatever political leaders in Tallahassee may wish, most homes in Florida are eventually going to have more of an ocean view than they bargained for.

Not being prepared to live in this world has consequences. Florida and its students are paying the price for a government that is not prepared to deal with the complex world around them. Parents may need to take a second look at whether they want to have their children left in the dark on issues vital to their interests.

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Academic Fiefdom

Young scholars will have to decide if they want to risk their academic careers in states where politicians are happy to be at war with the traditions of a liberal education.

Academic Freedom is under threat in a number of states, most notably in Florida. A person only needs to look as far as a recent gathering of the reconstituted Board of Trustees at New College, a small public liberal arts campus in Sarasota.  Recently, and in just a few seconds, the conventions of shared governance with the faculty and administration were trashed.

The video of the trustee meeting that resulted in a barrage of dismissals is a heartbreaker: the equivalent of vandals ransacking a gallery of carefully curated paintings.  The names of five scholars were proposed to the board for tenure: the most momentous event in an academic’s work history. All were summarily rejected, in spite of the support of their Department and their disciplinary counterparts from other campuses. Those who saw their careers ransacked in an instant came from the fields of oceanography, chemistry, Latin American Studies and music. In seconds, and with no debate, the life-altering decision that they prepared for over decades was rendered. They did not achieve the vote of confidence that at most universities is pro-forma at this stage.  A Board’s vote is normally the final step of a rigorous peer-review process after exhausting years of individual preparation.

A tenured position is the most significant hurdle for a scholar set on  making their mark in a chosen field.  Tenure at a reputable school requires years of research or writing, and usually a clear record of achievement in the classroom. An individual professor reaches this decision point usually between the ages of 30 and 40. It is the single best shot at a full career: a knife edge decision-point that is the stuff of nightmares and dreams. Many who fail to secure tenure are looking at a lifetime on the margins of academic life, with too little time for research and too many large classes to manage. Without tenure, limited contracts are offered, usually without the chance to become a meaningful force in the life of their department.

The newly reconstituted New College Board was chosen by a governor known to be intent on punishing the College for its reputation as a progressive bastion. That explains why the President was fired and the campus diversity office was closed. It has since become clear that an obscure religious school in Michigan is to be the model for New College. Like it or not, the school’s faculty have found that they are suddenly on a train that has left the main line for a sidetrack headed into the backwoods of nativist thinking.

It is good to remember that tenure is given to academics to allow them to pursue their chosen scholarship without pressure from college and departmental bureaucracies. When working properly, it should be enough to defeat attempts to silence teachers with the kinds of gag orders favored in Florida. In the same way, tenure at least indirectly protects students who can expect an expanded horizon of ideas to be explored.

Popular narratives like to poke at tenure as a license for faculty laziness. And it happens.  But it is rare for a senior scholar or a master teacher to lose interest in what they worked so hard to achieve.

What is at risk in states where legislators and governors are looking for ways to create political mischief?  More faculty will be shunned by newly enfranchised and anti-intellectual board members, many of whom have their eyes on traditional liberal arts departments. History, English, Philosophy, and Music: are among the seven liberal arts that have made up the core university curriculum since antiquity.  But they are not safe if legislators want universities to abandon ideas and turn themselves into trade schools.

Institutions that used to be the pride of specific states will have to guard against direct interference. Their many stakeholders will also need to push back.  And young scholars must decide if they want to risk their years of academic training in states where non-expert politicians are happy to be at war with the canons and traditions of a liberal education.

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