What the Hell is Going on in Florida? Part Three.
Over the past few months, Florida’s Republican legislature and governor have combined to create “culture war” legislation aimed at rallying their base for next year’s mid-term elections. Florida is not alone in doing this; many “red” states have enacted or are considering enacting similar pieces of legislation. As a sociologist, I follow a lot of national discussions and debates, but I don’t feel the need to comment on them all. However, I’ve had 4 or 5 people reach out to me and ask my thoughts on these, so I figured I’d say something about them, over three separate posts. Part One will discuss Critical Race Theory (CRT), Part Two will discuss the banning of transgender girls from state high school sporting teams and Part Three will discuss what Republicans call socialist indoctrination in higher education.
“Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”*
In opposition to what he calls “indoctrination” of students, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed House Bill 233 into law, which will require public universities and colleges to survey students, faculty, and staff about their beliefs and viewpoints to support “intellectual diversity and competing ideas on college campuses”. The wording of the law “prohibits shielding students, staff, and faculty from certain speech; requires the State Board of Education to conduct annual assessments on intellectual freedom & viewpoint diversity; and creates a cause of action for recording or publication of certain video or audio recordings…”.
What is the motivation for this? Has the ghost of Karl Marx permeated the Ivory Towers in Florida? Actually, there is no real reason for this, other than a few (loud) voices that fear open-mindedness being taught to college students. The governor said he “knows a lot of parents” who are worried that their children will be “indoctrinated” when they go off to college. “It used to be thought that a university campus was a place where you’d be exposed to a lot of different ideas. Unfortunately, now the norm is really more intellectually repressive environments,” DeSantis said.
In response, I’d like to tackle this new law in separate pieces…
I. Promoting Intellectual Diversity
When discussing the bill, DeSantis stated “that having intellectual diversity is something that is very, very important”. For those following at home, this might seem perplexing, since DeSantis also recently signed into law a bill that bans specific lessons and discussions in K-12 public schools related to racism, critical race theory, and “The 1619 Project”.
DeSantis and the Republican legislature are concerned that higher education stifles free speech from conservatives. However, public universities in the U.S. are bound by the First Amendment and cannot discriminate against viewpoints, so students already have the right to free speech on campus. All viewpoints can be expressed freely and openly by law.
The bill defines the terms as the exposure to — and encouragement or exploration of — a variety of ideological and political perspectives. “We want our universities to be focused on critical thinking and academic rigor. We do not want them as basically hotbeds for stale ideology,” DeSantis stated.
His claim that he supports critical thinking seems dubious, since he has banned the teaching of “critical” race theory. Also, I’m curious as to why non-capitalist teachings would be considered ‘stale ideology’? Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, speaking with confidence behind his 25-year-old Associate of Arts degree, said there appear to be “socialism factories” in the state’s public university system, and Republican House Speaker Chris Sprowls, pontificated that “we are at great risk, as a nation and as a state on the lack of intellectual diversity that is on our university campuses”.
So how do you define stale ideology? If we look at the approximately 200 independent nations in the world, right now, how many would have elements of socialism, communism, or social democracy? Just about every one… Even in the capitalist bastion of the United States, we have national parks, social security, Medicare, etc. Socialism emerged as a response to the expanding capitalist system, not the other way around, so perhaps the capitalist notions of Scottish economist Adam Smith are stale?
Or maybe, since none of the language of the law actually mentions socialism or capitalism, it could be interpreted as encouraging intellectual diversity among the conservative ranks of academia?? Like when I see the bumper sticker that reads, “Take America Back!”, I always want to approach the vehicle driver and say, “Hell yes! Let’s take America back from these right-wing bigots and religious zealots!”. My colleague David Jaffee has summed it up nicely, saying the law “is no problem for me. Most faculty support capitalism, I support socialism. I am therefore introducing intellectual diversity into the academy”. A friend of his astutely pointed out that DeSantis has told cities that they CANNOT reduce police funding, a public (socialist) civil service, yet threatens to pull funding from universities if they don’t support capitalism and quash discussions of socialism. Which is it?
It is also apparent that Republicans never seem to be concerned about the lack of intellectual diversity in the business school. For years, I used Stan Eitzen’s Social Problems text book in my Social Problems class, which challenges capitalism and supports a democratic socialist position, and every now and then a student would complain that the book was biased. But students that take classes in business, marketing, finance, accounting, economics, business administration, entrepreneurship, logistics, industrial psychology, operations management, etc. etc. etc. are receiving pro-capitalist indoctrination yet they don’t see the bias. They view it as neutral, and fields of study that challenge the status quo are viewed as ‘socialist factories’. There is no “neutral”; one either supports the status quo by furthering it or not objecting to it, or one challenges it. Ideology is like body odor- you never notice your own. Then again, maybe DeSantis does notice his own, he just wants to pummel anyone who doesn’t like it.
II. Students Can Surreptitiously Record Professors
What in the round world is this about? The law actually allows students to record their professors teaching in order to file free speech complaints against them. Students can therefore record lectures without consent to support a civil or criminal case against a higher-education institution. And when a higher-education institution is sued who foots the bill for legal representation? The taxpayers. I’m not sure what traction they expect to get from this, but do legislators really believe liberal professors are telling students they are not allowed to talk about capitalism in their classes?
The law requires public universities to assess “viewpoint diversity” on campus each year through a survey developed by the State Board of Education, the specific contents of which are currently unknown. The survey will consider the extent to which “competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and members of the college community “feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom,” according to the bill.
Although the Florida law does not address penalties for schools where the survey finds low levels of “intellectual freedom” and “viewpoint diversity,” DeSantis has hinted at the potential for budget cuts at universities that don’t pass some sort of litmus test, which could have a chilling effect on intellectual and academic freedom.
The bill also offers no assurances that the survey’s answers will be anonymous, and there is no clarity on who can use the data and for what purpose. My hope here is that faculty and students will boycott the survey and/or use the Christmas tree answer method so popular among students on multiple choice tests :)
IV. Shielding Students
Finally, the post-secondary education bill also bans faculty members from “shielding” students from free speech. According to the law, “‘shield’ means to limit students’, faculty members’, or staff members’ access to, or observation of, ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive”.
Similar to the notion of ‘intellectual diversity’, precluding difficult discussions about our society not only waters down the college experience, it also confines us to rigid and narrow constructs that only serve to perpetuate our underlying belief systems. In the song “What it Means”, Patterson Hood of the Drive-by Truckers sings, “We trust science just as long as it tells us what we want to hear; we want our truths all fair and balanced, as long as our notions lie within”. [And for emphasis, the verse continues: “There's no sunlight in our ass', and our heads are stuck up in it”. Indeed!]
As a sociology professor, this issue certainly hits home. Introduction to Sociology, for example, is a survey course, so it covers topics such as race, gender, sexuality, religion, poverty, and families. If I can’t teach a topic through lecture and class discussion that might make a student uncomfortable, then I better hang up my chalk! If we only teach people what they already feel is true, then what’s the point, why pay the tuition? I’ll conclude with a Nicholas Christakis quote:
“Students learn by talking to each other, expressing their feelings, saying ‘hey that hurts my feelings and here’s why’, and the other person saying ‘ok, I understand’ or ‘I don’t understand, I reject that reason’. Buying into a commitment to free and open expression ultimately serves the objectives of righteous social progress. If we really want to do better in our society, in my view, we have to create an environment where we can talk to each other, grant good faith, listen carefully, make subtle distinctions and free people up to express what they are thinking so we can have a real marketplace of ideas."
Shame on Floridians for voting such close-minded politicians into office- let’s vote them out!
*Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues by Bob Dylan:
“This is called "Talkin' John Birch paranoid blues" (and their ain’t nothing wrong with it!)
I was feeling kinda a little down, blue I didn't know what I was going to do The communists was a-comin' around, they was in the air, they was on the ground They was fallin' me all over
I run down most hurriedly And joined the John Birch society Got me a secret membership card, started walking home, found the road, yoo-hoo I'm a real John Bircher now, look out
Now we all agree with Hitler's views Although he killed six million Jews It don't matter too much that he was a Fascist At least you can't say he was a Communist! That's to say like if you got a cold, take a shot of malaria
I was lookin' everywhere for them gol-darned Reds I got up in the mornin' 'n' looked under my bed Looked behind the kitchen, behind the door Looked in the glove compartment of my car Couldn't find any
Looked behind the sink, behind the chair I was lookin' for them Reds everywhere I looked way up my chimney hole Looked deep down inside my toilet bowl They got away...
I was sittin' home alone an' started to sweat I figured they was in my T.V. set I peeked behind the picture frame Got a shock from my feet, hit me right up in the brain Them Reds did it! Them hard-core ones
Well, I quit my job so I could work all alone Then I changed my name to Sherlock Holmes Followin' some clues from my detective bag Discovered there was red stripes on the American flag!
Old Betty Ross...
Now Eisenhower, he's a Russian spy Lincoln, Jefferson and that Roosevelt guy To my knowledge there's just one man that's really a true American George Lincoln Rockwell I know for a fact he hates Commies 'cause he picketed the movie "Exodus"
Well, I finally started thinkin' straight When I ran outta things to investigate I couldn't imagine anything else So now I'm at home investigatin' myself Hope I don't find out anything... good God!”