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Ron DeSantis’s Illiberal Education Crusade

Florida’s “anti-woke” power grabs in K-12 and public universities should be opposed—but not by defending progressive illiberalism.
March 1, 2023
Ron DeSantis’s Illiberal Education Crusade
(Photo Illustration by Hannah Yoest / Original Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The “War on Woke” waged by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis continues with a new bill introduced in the Florida House of Representatives last week, House Bill 999, based on proposals introduced by DeSantis at the end of January. While DeSantis’s office said the proposal would elevate “intellectual freedom,” such language can be seen as Orwellian considering that the bill restricts or bans the teaching of a number of ideas and concepts at public colleges and universities in the Sunshine State.

This comes on the heels of an ongoing controversy about Florida’s decision to nix a proposed AP curriculum in African American studies (and a subsequent College Board announcement of a revised curriculum, apparently in response to criticism from Florida officials).

And conflicts continue over moves by trustees DeSantis appointed in January, including anti-woke crusader Christopher Rufo, to give a struggling liberal arts school in Sarasota a conservative makeover.

And before that there were DeSantis’s controversial education laws enacted last year, the Stop WOKE Act (parts of which a federal judge declared unconstitutional) and the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law (which puts limits on classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity).

Add to this battles over purging books with controversial race and gender themes from school libraries, and the alarm among those on the left and in the center about creeping Republican right-wing illiberalism which is likely to be replicated in other “red states”—and on the federal level if DeSantis wins the presidency in 2024—becomes entirely understandable.

But Democrats and dissident conservatives attempting to describe and respond to this worrisome trend often resort to badly flawed narratives that distort the overall picture in several ways.

First, these narratives sometimes exaggerate the right-wing depredations they critique—for instance, by equating the rejection of the African American studies AP curriculum with an outright ban on teaching African American history.

Second, they tend to discount the very real problem of left-wing illiberalism and ideological diktat in education, dismissing all complaints about it as either astroturfed right-wing disinformation or misguided centrist panic that plays into the hands of the right. To acknowledge that at least in some cases DeSantis and his imitators are responding to real problems and tapping into valid concerns may complicate the narrative, but it doesn’t mean that the “anti-woke” right is fighting the good fight. It just means that the political fights over these issues often pit the proverbial two wrongs against each other—and that the sane middle desperately needs alternatives.

Targeting “Harmful” Concepts

Florida’s HB 999 is an almost perfect case in point, since it’s practically an anti-woke higher education wish list. There is, perhaps most notably, a ban on “any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems” at any public college or university. General education core courses at state schools may not “include a curriculum that teaches identity politics, such as Critical Race Theory, or defines American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” There is a ban on the funding of extracurricular programs and activities that espouse “diversity, equity, and inclusion or Critical Race Theory rhetoric” or other concepts flagged as problematic by an earlier Florida law and associated with social justice ideology (e.g., that “a person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” or “bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex”). The bill also shifts the power to hire professors to school boards of trustees and allows trustees to periodically review faculty members’ tenure.

If all of this looks blatantly unconstitutional, not to mention an unabashed assault on academic freedom, that’s because it is. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which has long defended academic freedom and has sometimes taken potshots from the left for supposedly focusing too much on threats to freedom from progressive activists and safe-space seekers, has issued a scathing critique of HB 999 which mostly points out the obvious—for instance, that its prohibitions on certain kinds of teaching are not only ideologically restrictive but dangerously vague. “Critical Race Theory” and “identity politics” are not defined; college administrators and political appointees are left to decide what kind instruction may “suppress or distort significant historical events”; another, even hazier prohibition applies to “unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content” in general education courses—that is, in introductory or widely required classes. (FIRE is already involved in a legal challenge in federal court to DeSantis’s 2022 Stop WOKE Act.)

FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh, who wrote the critique of HB 999 for the FIRE website, told me in a telephone interview over the weekend that among other things, the bill would “give a really wide berth to limit the content of general education courses.” Even the teaching of evolution in introductory biology could come under assault on the grounds that it’s a “theory.” The proposal, says Steinbaugh, is likely to have a chilling effect even before it becomes law and takes effect:

It takes a long time for faculty and universities to plan courses, which means that [if] you know that the law may take effect in July and you start planning a class for this coming fall, you start making some decisions now if you expect that this is going to pass in its current form.

The other aspect of this is that because it’s vague, if you’re a faculty member or even an administrator at a university, you’re going to have to guess what the lawmakers mean by this. And if your funding is on the line, you are going to take the most institutionally protective stance that you can take—which means that you’re going to take the most chilling interpretation of the law and apply that, just to be safe.

Attorney and writer Wendy Kaminer, a former American Civil Liberties Union board member who has for years been a strong critic of what she sees as the progressive abandonment of free speech principles, is equally harsh about the right-wing pushback in Florida and other red states. The new Florida legislation and the earlier Stop WOKE bill, she told me by telephone, represent nothing less than “a state-imposed orthodoxy on education, and especially on higher education. It’s saying that there is no such thing as academic freedom, that professors are simply employees of the state and they have to parrot whatever the state tells them to parrot.”

But Kaminer (who is a FIRE advisory board member but stressed that she was speaking only in her capacity as an individual) also pointed to an irony that she believes a lot of progressives miss: The conservative backlash operates by using “theories that were developed on the left” and have been widely applied through college speech codes over the past thirty years or so—theories about the harms of speech that is viewed as traumatic to the listener and the right of listeners to be safe from hurtful or offensive expression.

“You see a very similar hostility to free speech coming from both the ‘woke’ and the ‘anti-woke,’” says Kaminer. However, she adds, while progressives have largely censured speech that they regard as harmful—essentially, as a form of assaultive conduct—using “cultural power” and institutional power, the right, with its current strength in state legislatures, is currently doing it “by force of law.”

This is not an absolute distinction: To some extent, laws prohibiting racial and sexual harassment under Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act bring the federal government into speech regulation that is not always limited to targeted harassment of individuals. Some scholars, mostly conservative- and libertarian-leaning, have long expressed concerns about the potential threat to free expression from “hostile environment” harassment law—a particularly salient concern in academia, where “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” may include constitutionally protected and educationally essential speech or content. These aren’t just paranoid fantasies: There have been actual instances of sexual harassment charges based on, for example, a professor’s classroom discussion of the issue of false accusations of sexual harassment and rape, or a student’s statement of his religious objections to same-sex relationships in a response to a professor’s mass email. One currently pending legal case in Florida concerns a “discriminatory harassment” policy at the University of Central Florida which the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded was so broad and so vague that it could prohibit anti-abortion or anti-immigration advocacy.

In some ways, red-state “anti-woke” bills are broader and cruder in their attempts at speech regulation: No campus policy against “discriminatory speech” has ever tried to kill entire academic programs and majors the way HB 999 would kill critical race scholarship and gender studies. (Here, DeSantis is taking a page from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the proud champion of “illiberal democracy” and the darling of American “national conservatives,” who signed a decree effectively banning gender studies programs in Hungarian universities five years ago.)

And yet at least on one point, DeSantis’s “anti-woke” effort puts him essentially on the same side as FIRE: the opposition to mandatory “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) statements required from faculty and administrators as a condition of hiring or continued employment. According to recent surveys, about a fifth of academic job postings and a fifth of tenure-track positions require DEI statements; large and/or elite institutions are especially likely to have such requirements, and many other schools are considering adding them. As FIRE points out, DEI statements are, in many cases, not simply about a commitment to treat all students fairly: They require professors to embrace a particular, ideologically driven vision of “diversity” and “equity” and accept specific assertions about the pervasiveness of racism, sexism, and other “systems of oppression” in American society. It’s not only compelled speech but viewpoint discrimination, says Steinbaugh: “If you solicit statements about diversity from faculty members, that can be used as a litmus test and it can be used as a way to screen out members who don’t necessarily toe the line on what their would-be or actual colleagues believe.”

African American Studies and Viewpoint Diversity

The controversy over the Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum in African American studies is even more complicated, since K-12 education does not have the same constitutional speech protections as higher education: While viewpoint diversity is a central purpose of college and university education, the law recognizes that K-12 public education has the legitimate function of inculcating values befitting responsible democratic citizenship. (Of course, just what those specific values should be in a diverse society is one of the bones of contention.)

The announcement that DeSantis’s Department of Education had rejected the draft curriculum proposed by the College Board quickly sparked accusations that Florida Republicans did not want high school students to learn about African American history, racism, and other uncomfortable subjects. MSNBC columnist Dean Obeidallah, for example, wrote that the rejection of the AP course had nothing to do with the curriculum contents and everything to do with the fact that DeSantis was pandering to “Republican voters’ hostility to teaching Black history in school.” There is evidence for this claim: According to a 2018 Economist/YouGov poll, 37 percent of Republicans—including 43 percent of 2016 Trump voters—thought there was “too much” black history being taught in schools. (Among Democrats, two-thirds thought it wasn’t being taught enough.)

DeSantis defenders have noted that Florida already has a high school black history requirement. However, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that, as Obeidallah asserted, the DeSantis administration decided to publicly target “wokeness” in the AP African American studies course to pander to those voters who think there’s just too much black history being taught and too much focus on racism.

When, a few weeks after the controversy broke, the College Board issued a revised curriculum for the AP course that removed from the mandatory category material on the Black Lives Matter movement, on “Black Queer Studies,” and on the work of radical black scholars such as Angela Davis and Kimberlé Crenshaw, critics cried foul, seeing the change as a concession to pressure. (If so, the pressure was brought to bear over a longer timeline: Subsequently released correspondence showed that Florida education officials had been discussing the content of the curriculum with the College Board since January 2022, and had first flagged some of the course’s units as running afoul of Florida law last July.)

But was the state’s initial rejection of those parts of the curriculum wrong? New York Times columnist John McWhorter, a Columbia University linguistics professor and a self-described liberal Democrat critical of orthodox anti-racism, has argued that in this case DeSantis was probably right, even if only incidentally:

The take that I saw in the course’s original draft depicted the history of Black America over the past several decades as an unbroken stream of left protest against a seemingly unchanging racist hegemon. . . . But Black history has been ever so much more than protest and professional pessimism. . . . This is not education but advocacy.

It should be noted that the final version of the course still includes optional research project topics on Black Lives Matter, intersectionality, the reparations debate, and gay life in the black community, which helps mitigate the comparative sparseness of the revised curriculum’s post–Civil Rights–era content. But it also seems to take a more ideologically diverse approach than the original proposal, with a new suggested research project topic on black conservatism and another on the spectrum of black political life in the United States. (Material by Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice appears in one of the course’s learning modules; the curriculum also includes texts by Barack Obama and John Lewis.) In a Politico column, Joshua Zeitz argues that while works on “intersectionality, reparations and the carceral state” are indeed political and polarizing, they don’t amount to “indoctrination” because reading texts doesn’t mean agreeing with them any more than reading Ross Douthat’s New York Times column means becoming a Republican.

But the issue isn’t exposing students to polemical texts; it’s offering them an ideologically skewed and limited reading selection (Ta-Nehisi Coates but not McWhorter, for example) and presenting it as the full range of reflection on the African American story and experience.

“The people opposed to the new version are thrown by their sense that the hard-left take on race issues is truth rather than an opinion,” McWhorter told me by email earlier this month:

The views of people like Crenshaw are indeed politics, an opinion out of many, not “the way it is.” As such, students should have the option of exploring such things, but not be instructed in them as canon. The argument for reparations and the idea that law enforcement singles out black people are similar cases.

Some critics of the revised AP curriculum have argued, essentially, that the new version of the course ran counter to the purpose of African American studies: It was, UCLA history professor Robin D.G. Kelley told Vox, a wrongheaded attempt to “professionalize” a field whose “raison d’être came out of political struggle.” But this complaint itself seems to raise valid questions about viewpoint diversity within overtly political disciplines. Academic freedom certainly protects the right of faculty members to teach in accordance with their beliefs and their scholarship; but does it protect the right, in a public university, to maintain advocacy-oriented ideological consistency within a particular field? And should states be able to require more intellectual diversity in pre-college courses in K-12? This is one instance in which DeSantis is not self-evidently on the more authoritarian side.

New College of Florida: Reform or Wrecking Ball? 

On the other hand, the New College of Florida controversy continues to make the DeSantis administration look like the bully in the room, with the recently installed pro-DeSantis majority on the board of trustees swooping in with promises to overhaul the financially struggling school and turn it into a new Hillsdale College—Hillsdale being not only a Christian school but also one with famously right-wing politics.

In an article published in January, I noted that one of the new trustees, Emory University English professor emeritus and First Things senior editor Mark Bauerlein, had seemed to strike a more conciliatory note, expressing an interest in pluralism and measured reform at the school. So far, however, this is not the way things have gone. On February 1, New College president Patricia Okker—who had initially appeared to be on friendly terms with the new trustees but went on to criticize their “hostile takeover” rhetoric toward the school—was summarily dismissed from her post following a vote by the trustees. Her replacement: close DeSantis ally Richard Corcoran, a former Florida House speaker and former Florida Education Commissioner, who is active in a Hillsdale College-affiliated charter school initiative. Oh, and he was hired as interim president of New College at more than twice Okker’s compensation, which doesn’t exactly scream good-faith reform. (Remember, part of the given reason for the New School takeover was that it was in a financial hole.)

Meanwhile, new trustee Eddie Speir, a Christian private academy director, had wanted to go beyond removing Okker: in a blogpost before his first board of trustees meeting, he had suggested “terminating all contracts for faculty, staff and administration and immediately rehiring those faculty, staff and administration who fit in the new financial and business model.”

An added wrinkle in this saga is that the school really isn’t the caricature of academic wokeness run amok that Chris Rufo and others from Team DeSantis have made it out to be. For instance, while independent study projects make up a large portion of its curriculum, these projects seem, for the most part, solidly grounded in traditional academic subjects. After my January article appeared, I received an email confirming this impression from Glenn Whitehouse, a professor and associate dean at Florida Gulf Coast University, a New College alumnus, and the parent of a recent graduate. Whitehouse, who gave me permission to quote his comments, blasted “the misrepresentations that New College teaches a partisan progressive curriculum, or that it somehow needs to be changed in order to become a real liberal arts college.” In fact, he wrote, “liberal arts education, in the sense of the great conversation guided by great books, is very much alive at New College”:

Although the school does not use a “great books” curriculum in the St. John’s or Hillsdale sense, students at New College are definitely reading the Western classics (among other things) in a curriculum that is dominated by careful reading of primary texts, and substantial writing assignments. If students at the institution where I currently teach had even half the familiarity with classic texts that the average New College student gets, I’d be a happier professor.

Another defense of New College came from an unexpected source: DeSantis appointee Mark Bauerlein, who emphasized his respect for the “lefty professors” on the school’s faculty in a long telephone conversation with me last weekend. “Everything I hear about them is, they do work the students pretty hard and they’re very attentive and conscientious about teaching,” Bauerlein told me. “The idea that they don’t give grades—that doesn’t bother me at all.” Bauerlein also agreed that the independent study projects at New College were generally academically solid.

So, whither New College? And what does Bauerlein think of DeSantis’s broader crusade? Our conversation did not change my earlier impression that, whatever one may think of Bauerlein’s pro-Trump politics, he is a serious scholar with a genuine love for the life of the mind and a sincere interest in creating a better climate for learning and intellectual discourse. But it also left me feeling that I was witnessing a cautionary tale in progress about the perils of bad alliances formed under the influence of a “crisis” mentality.

Bauerlein told me that his loyalty to DeSantis stemmed from his earlier experience working with him on K-12 education, where the governor gave Bauerlein a major role in developing Florida’s English Language Arts standards. But his acceptance of DeSantis’s nakedly political moves to beat the “woke” academy into submission was also motivated by a profound pessimism about the state of academia. People who don’t see how dire the situation is, Bauerlein insisted, simply haven’t seen it up close—and in this dire situation, only drastic and political solutions will do. (Bauerlein’s comments below have been condensed and edited for clarity.)

If scholarly organizations, if the faculty, if the universities have shown that they are incapable of sustaining liberal academic norms, then a political intervention is required—and I think that the scholarly organizations have shown that they will not stand up for a properly unpolitical, ivory-tower concept of the university. They’re okay with tendentious job searches; they’re okay with politicized disciplines; they’re not going to curtail it.

So I think that this actually necessitates political intervention, and I would say that in cases when speakers have been shut down, shouted down—when disruptions have occurred—when [maverick feminist scholar] Camille Paglia is giving a talk and they start yelling from the back because of her comments about trans individuals in some other setting—then, especially in public universities, it’s time for political intervention, it’s time for the will of the people through its representatives to issue a correction.

But supposing that’s the case, shouldn’t political interventions seek to restore freedom of expression and intellectual diversity, not impose a different orthodoxy? Bauerlein gave no direct response to my repeated attempts to nail down an answer to this question; instead, he returned yet again to the abandonment of liberal norms by universities and academic organizations such as the AAUP, which, he said, “have no credibility on academic freedom” after repeatedly failing to object to “woke illiberalism.” But what about criticism from a group like FIRE, which certainly can’t be accused of failing to stand up to illiberal progressives in academia? Bauerlein acknowledged that FIRE had taken laudable positions on such issues as DEI statements, but shrugged off the organization as ultimately ineffective: “They’ll stop a school from doing something, but [the school is] going to do it again next year.”

Interestingly, Bauerlein acknowledged that he felt “uncomfortable” and “nervous” about banning certain courses and majors such as gender studies (and sounded genuinely troubled as he said it), but he ultimately concluded that these fields were unsalvageable: For one thing, shutting them down was the only way to get rid of tenured faculty who would never permit a challenge to leftist dogma. “The system is really, really broken,” he told me.

There’s a lot of malfeasance going on, some of it intentional, some of it unintentional. I don’t see anything good that will be destroyed by politicians saying, “No, we’ve got to do something political, we’ve got to take some political action against the universities.” . . . Something has to be done to fix this decay.

The rot, Bauerlein made clear, goes beyond those disciplines he sees as intrinsically ideological; it is prevalent in the humanities in general, and John Stuart Mill–style advocacy for diversity of opinions and the marketplace of ideas serves only to empower those who want to exploit liberal norms for their own political ends:

The advance of illiberalism laughs at people who come in and say, “Well, we want diversity of ideas”—they love that argument! They think, You’re perfect for us, you’re wonderful in terms of helping us to turn the campus in these illiberal directions.

Bauerlein’s advocacy of a wrecking-ball approach to the humanities as they’re being taught at universities in general certainly draws a sharp contrast with his cautious and moderate statements about what should be done at New College. But he also seemed to downplay his fellow trustees’ more radical attitudes and professed ignorance about the substance of their intentions—attitudes and intentions that, one might add, seem largely consonant with Bauerlein’s more general views of the plight of the humanities today.

For instance, he expressed the opinion that the college’s extensive independent study projects were largely academically solid and should not be dismantled—only to also acknowledge, “I mean, I don’t know what the other trustees are gonna do.” Bauerlein said that he hadn’t spoken to Rufo or any other trustees, and further, that they weren’t actually allowed to communicate privately about board matters. I asked him about Speir’s post about terminating all faculty and staff and rehiring only those who fit into the school’s new model. “I just laughed at that,” said Bauerlein, actually laughing. “I mean, not only is that not gonna happen, that can’t happen. You can’t just go in and fire [everyone].” Besides, he added, “I have heard fire-breathing leftists say things so, so much worse.”

But what of Okker’s removal from the post of college president, which actually had happened—and about which, Bauerlein admitted, he hadn’t known until the day it was brought up at the board meeting? Here, Bauerlein paused, sounding audibly uneasy; he said that he had had a very friendly conversation with Okker and that they had found common ground as English professors. But ultimately, he thought, she had to go—maybe even for her own good:

When her situation came up, she was very emotional. She started tearing up and her voice was breaking at one point—it was very hard for her. And at that moment I thought, You know, I don’t think that the reforms will move forward under her. I like her—I think she is a good, sincere person—but I do not see her being able to make some tough decisions, such as some of those that I would advocate. I would like to see the whole office of diversity shut down. I didn’t see her taking charge of that kind of decision. The tensions are gonna be there—they’re gonna happen. And I actually think if she stayed in office, she would [have been] absolutely miserable for the next year.

Dueling Illiberalisms 

So there we have it: It’s the “Flight 93 election,” academia edition. The argument on the right is that things are so bad, only red-state politicians can save the academy, and they must save it by banning “woke” ideas and axing “woke” programs. You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

Kaminer, who has watched decades of social and institutional censorship campaigns from the left, sees a profound irony in the current “power plays on the right”:

They’re saying, This is so crucial, so important, so essential for the preservation of American culture or American democracy that we cannot afford to give the people who oppose us the rights that we want to enjoy. And that’s what the left has been saying for years: We can’t afford to let them speak because their speech is a form of discrimination, and we can’t afford to let that continue.

One may debate just how bad things have gotten in the academy. (The Knight Foundation, which has done annual surveys on the campus climate for speech since 2016, finds that close to 60 percent of students believe freedom of speech is more important than for a campus to be made “safe” from offensive speech or ideas.) But in any case, the notion that political pressures on the right can “fix” the damage from political pressures on the left is deeply misguided. The most likely result of these interventions in Florida—and similar legislation now being proposed in other states following Florida’s example—will be further polarization and wagon-circling. The left will brush aside critiques of speech suppression by institutional power and cultural diktat, arguing that only censorship by the government matters. The right will defend political interventions as the only way to curb the progressive stewards of culture and academe. This particular culture war may turn into a race to the bottom between the “red” and the “blue”: legally and institutionally coercive crusades to squash “wokeness” on the “red” side, knee-jerk defenses of “woke” institutional and cultural coercion on the “blue” side.

Are there enough people of goodwill to work across partisan divides to defend free expression, promote open debate, and counter the illiberal drift in academic and cultural institutions through speech, advocacy, reform, legal challenges, and other hard work? The survival of an open society may depend on the answer.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.