Woke the Gator
Every once in a while I have to go to Florida, usually to visit with our wonderful Trinity alumnae there. While there, I sometimes try to find a few extra hours to take my camera into the Everglades to marvel at the extraordinary array of wildlife. I am always amazed at the natural beauty of the Florida wilderness… and also at the terrifying dangers that lurk so close to civilization. Walking near the underbrush along small canals or lakes, I take care lest a gator or croc might see a delicious feast on the edge. For me, Florida always has that paradox of remarkable beauty and extreme danger lurking just below.
The paradox of Florida — so much great wealth alongside deep poverty, so rich with a vast multicultural history and global culture, an old civilization encroaching the edges of the wild places full of danger, always alert to the threats of winds and seas — this paradox has taken on an even stranger and more disturbing life during the administration of a governor hell bent on denying some of the most basic facts of life.
Disease kills and needs the protection of vaccines — but not according to Florida Governor DeSantis!
Some people in the great State of Florida are…. I will say it here… GAY… but that’s not a word to speak in the earshot of Governor DeSantis!
Black persons — Africans enslaved by white Europeans, freed slaves running south, the large diaspora of Africans living throughout the Caribbean region —- such persons have played vitally important and sustained roles in Florida’s history and American history. But not according to Governor DeSantis! Nope! Governor DeSantis, like the crocodile disturbed from slumber on a hot afternoon, rises up to bite and devour any teacher, any librarian, any college professor or president (or College Board test) that dares to suggest that African American History is a worthy topic of study among Florida’s precious students for whom American history shall remain pristine, mostly white and very tidy.
BREAKING NEWS: After I wrote that last sentence, the College Board released its new version of the Advanced Placement Course in African American Studies and the leaders of the College Board and its faculty advisors insisted that they did not consider Governor DeSantis’s criticism of the curriculum in developing the final course. Here’s Georgetown Professor Robert Patterson who was part of the planning team for the curriculum:
"The college board did not respond or cave to, as some of the reporting says, to political pressure from governor DeSantis or any other state" Prof. Robert Patterson on the criticism the college board is facing after they revised the AP African American course #SundayShow pic.twitter.com/H1jyLlXcyZ
— The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart (@TheSundayShow) February 5, 2023
Accepting Dr. Patterson’s explanation, we still have this problem: no governor should be dictating any curriculum. It’s still not clear if this “new” course will be adopted in Florida. The College Board did itself no favors by remaining silent in the face of the Governor’s attacks on the AP course prior to its release, setting up the suspicion that the course is a politically-influenced product. More to the point, the College Board’s leadership lacked the courage to speak out about the vital importance for Florida’s students, for all students, to learn African American history no matter how uncomfortable some of the readings and ideas might make the students.
DeSantis is now in open war with higher education in Florida, denouncing what he calls the “woke” curriculum; attacking programs to promote Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; denouncing programs that support LGBTQ persons; announcing that the future curricula of public universities will emphasize “western civilization” whatever that even is today; threatening to end tenure and driving “liberal” presidents from their offices while stacking the public boards with rightwing ideologues.
DeSantis is turning higher education into a propaganda machine for his own purposes, including is upcoming presidential bid. He has turned public school teachers and librarians into censors, pulling books from libraries and threatening jail time for those who do not comply. I wonder if he ever read Farenheit 451 or saw the movie? I suppose he would also ban Kurt Vonnegut if he hasn’t already.
Writing on his blog entitled “Race Matters,” renowned journalist Dan Rather noted:
“DeSantis has focused his assaults on two of our society’s most traditionally marginalized groups: Black Americans and the LGBTQ community. While these populations have thus far felt the brunt of his targeting, we need to see clearly that his rhetoric is a threat to all who care about a democratic, peaceful, empathetic, and just America. Those of us with the greatest privilege should bear a special burden in rejecting this hate….All that being said, there is a great danger to framing this struggle primarily through the lens of electoral politics. This normalizes a discourse that should be rejected by society’s mainstream. Just as the outright bigotry of the past became socially unacceptable, so too should these latest attempts at divisiveness.”
Higher education leaders across the country need to break out of their torpor and confront the authoritarian takeover of the academy in Florida and other states where governors are clearly itching to follow DeSantis’ lead. We need to “woke” that gator, hard! The racist underpinnings of much of the censorship and curtailment of academic freedom are clear. The right-wing assault on the curriculum is not just a theoretical battle about Shakespeare v. Morrison or Plato v. Coates (a worthy curriculum has room for all!), but truly a pitched battle about our students and what they must learn in order to build productive, peaceful communities in the most diverse nation in human history. The racism and homophobia of the DeSantis agenda are exactly the reasons why we must teach our students about the values of diversity, equity and inclusion as we seek to develop future leaders for our nation who have a a profound sense of compassion, fairness, respect for human dignity and desire to achieve justice for all.
Students need to learn the truth of American history in all of its bitter failures as well as its glorious triumphs. The role of slavery in building this nation is essential to understand where we are today. The struggles of immigrants — surely Florida, of all places, should understand this — are part of the fabric of contemporary society in these United States. The oppression of Black persons not just as an historical fact but as a contemporary reality is a suitable subject for students to learn, to discuss, to consider as part of formulating their own philosophies of life that will guide them in their future endeavors.
Too many college presidents and leaders of higher education associations are silent in the face of the tremendous assaults on the autonomy and freedom of higher education, our faculty and students. I wrote about this recently, see The Dumbing Down of the Purpose of Higher Education in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Too many presidents tell me that we shouldn’t say anything, that we should stay out of politics, that we risk retaliation if we stand up for our purpose and our values. I believe they are deeply wrong. I believe that if we do not confront the danger facing higher education this year, we will see further erosion of our sense of purpose, our freedom to teach what we believe we must teach, the freedom of our faculty to research and engage in scholarship on any and all topics of their choosing. In the end, our students and our society will be the real losers.
If we do not stand up for our right and the necessity of teaching our students how to manage diversity, how to promote equity and inclusion, what kind of leaders will they be in the most diverse nation ever in human history?
If we do not advocate for our immigrant students, our LGBTQ students and staff, our Black colleagues and students, what right do we have to award diplomas that specify higher learning — not governmentally-mandated lessons, not corporately-driven job training, not rote recitations of encyclopedia content — but higher learning which is the ability to see and understand the human condition from a broad expanse of knowledge, to engage in critical thinking about causes and solutions of human problems and planetary challenges, to accept the responsibility of being well educated to work for justice in the whole human community, taking special care to be of even greater service to those who are not so privileged?
Higher education is not a tool of any particular governor, legislature, member of Congress or presidential administration. Higher education is one of the greatest assets of a free society, the counterweight to government so as to ensure a check on exactly the kind of intellectual oppression that is occurring in Florida. We cannot afford the current silence if we are to have any hope of a vibrant future for higher education in this nation. We need to “woke” that gator, even if it means risk to our own comfort. It’s past time to sound the alarm. Who will join me?