Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed into law a bill that will survey students, faculty, and staff at public colleges and universities on whether they believe in “intellectual diversity.” Taken at face value, this seems harmless enough, but what does it actually mean? What is “intellectual diversity?” If a professor is teaching a biology course, does she have to give equal weight to Darwinian evolution and creationism derived from the Bible? What about the teaching of the Holocaust? Does the course have to include the conspiratorial arguments that deny the existence of the Holocaust? This kind of equal-time pedagogy is fanciful and does not make intellectual sense.
The governor justifies this new law on the basis of trying to prevent teachers from indoctrinating their students with “stale ideologies.” However, is this really the case? Would DeSantis and the Republicans who dominate the legislature be unhappy if what was taught in higher education classes was free-market capitalism, states’ rights restrictions on the federal government, the rights of the unborn to life, or other ideologies and beliefs that many Americans consider “stale?”
What is really at the center of this new law is not teaching in a “neutral” fashion. Rather, the Republican Party wants to restrict new ways of thinking about race, political and economic power, and America’s shortcomings in achieving its fundamental values of freedom and equality. Given the nation’s long history of slavery and Jim Crow policies deeply embedded in our political, economic, and legal institutions, the fear of realistic discussions of race remains at the heart of the supposed effort to ensure intellectual diversity.
If Republican lawmakers were interested in real intellectual diversity, they would welcome the teaching of critical race history, which provides a more accurate account of how American democracy long eviscerated citizenship rights of Black folks and placed continuing barriers that hamper the ability of marginalized groups to achieve success. Instead, they seek to demonize and eliminate critical race history. Notice that I have written critical race history, not critical race theory, as Republican detractors malign it. The current teaching of race in our colleges and universities is the product of decades of research in which scholars uncovered new sources of information and challenged stale narratives that claim slavery did not cause the Civil War, that Reconstruction was radical and misguided, and that Jim Crow was separate and equal.
Teaching critical race history is not ideological. It is based on facts gathered from archives that were previously undiscovered or ignored and through interviews with ordinary people who rarely get mentioned in textbooks. Professional historians modify interpretations based on the finding of new sources or the reinterpretation of older ones. In the light of this new evidence they reconsidered old narratives and embraced new ways of thinking. In this way, history is not dead and has important ramifications for the present. Once historians and other scholars open themselves to the diverse experiences of racial, ethnic, religious, and disadvantaged groups, they can create a more accurate and inclusive narrative of American history. DeSantis wants to revive the outmoded view of history that conforms to the current ideology of the Republican Party.
Florida lawmakers have tried this approach before. When the Democrats dominated the governorship and the legislature in the 1950s and 1960s, they created a state committee to investigate colleges and universities to root out what they considered subversive influences. Led by the one-time interim governor and state senator Charley Johns, this committee sought to root out instructors who challenged traditional orthodoxies, expose gay instructors to public ridicule, and wipe out the NAACP, the state’s premier civil rights organization. It took many years for the state universities to recover from the chilling effect of the Johns Committee. Gov. DeSantis and the Republican dominated Legislature are attempting to impose a new Charley Johnsism, which is as dangerous today as it was over 60 years ago,
Steven F. Lawson taught American history at the University of South Florida for twenty years and is co-author of the textbook Exploring American Histories, 4th ed.
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