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Ron DeSantis' assault on free thought

Florida is blocking an AP African American studies course. It’s worse than you think.
Image: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a campaign rally in Pittsburgh on Aug. 19, 2022.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a campaign rally in Pittsburgh on Aug. 19, 2022.Jeff Swensen / Getty Images file

Under the leadership of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida has become the right-wing vanguard in the culture wars over identity and speech. Every day, the state is making it clearer how the right’s agenda is not meant to protect “free speech” or critical thought, but instead is designed to systematically suppress them. 

The latest example comes via the Florida Department of Education’s rejection of an Advanced Placement course in African American studies. On Friday, the department characterized the course as “woke indoctrination” and objected to several aspects of its curriculum. But what it objects to as intolerable propaganda is simply the standard educational practice of exposing students to different frameworks for understanding the world. The concerning indoctrination in this scenario isn’t in the curriculum, but in Florida’s condemnation of that curriculum.

The concerning indoctrination in this scenario isn’t in the curriculum, but in Florida’s condemnation of that curriculum.

A bit of background on the course: This AP class, which high school students will be able to take in order to secure college credit, has been in development for nearly a decade and is now in its pilot phase. In its trial period, it’s being used in 60 schools, at least one of which is in Florida. One of the scholars who helped develop the course told NPR that the objective was “to give a comprehensive view of the culture, literature, historical development, political movements, social movements” of Black Americans. Toward that end it includes units on events such as the Harlem Renaissance and Reconstruction. But Florida state officials are saying the course — which is overseen by the College Board — violates its state law and “significantly lacks educational value.” And DeSantis on Monday tried to justify blocking the course in part because he doesn’t view Black history as “as separate history” but as part of American history.

DeSantis' statement is a bizarre claim — if Black history is part of U.S. history, then why is he freezing the study of it out of his school system? It represents yet another way that the right's alleged commitment to color blindness can be weaponized against the most modest efforts at multiculturalism.

It also represents an assault on free thought. Florida’s commissioner of education has released a statement highlighting the state’s objections to the AP course’s curriculum that should concern anyone who values academic freedom. The objections include opposition to the course’s coverage of topics including reparations, Movements for Black Lives, intersectionality, Black feminist literary thought and Black queer thought. The statement disapprovingly highlights coursework critiquing mass incarceration of Black communities. And it homes in on any sign of left-wing thought in the curriculum. It flags the scholar bell hooks’ use of “white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and Robin D.G Kelley’s writing about the difficulties of resisting capitalism and “activism as a catalyst for social transformation.” One bullet point simply reads: “Angela Davis, self-avowed Communist and Marxist.” 

It’s shocking to see the state dismiss the work of widely esteemed scholars who are staples of college curricula across America — which is precisely what AP courses are meant to introduce high school students to. But even more shocking is the way Florida is policing ideology. The statement does not explain why these writings — which are uncontroversially parts of the Black intellectual tradition — lack educational value. It is instead just a list of ideas that Florida’s right-wing government officials think should be forbidden for discussion. Anything that registers as too vociferously antiracist, too openly left wing or too friendly to progressive activism is out.

DeSantis seems to think that students’ mere exposure to these ideas represents an effort at proselytization. Never mind that one of the key goals of liberal arts education is to expose students to an abundance of different histories, ideas and traditions and teach them to engage with them critically. I’m sure none of Florida’s educational officials believes that studying the Confederacy is the same thing as an endorsement of slavery. Nor is it likely they think that reading about formation of racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan — as I did in school — ensures that a student will simply become a supporter of lynchings. 

This is to say nothing of the substance of the coursework, which is defensible on its merits. Left-wing Black intellectual critiques of racism, capitalism, and patriarchy have long been vital currents of American intellectual life. They have tremendous explanatory power because they’re working off careful observations of how American society institutionalizes domination and exploitation. Even if one doesn’t agree with its conclusions, it’s essential reading for any citizen who wishes to think seriously about power and justice. (Note that any survey of Black history will also, of course, include plenty of nonleftist thought.)

Conservatives love to go on about the importance of free speech and how it’s under threat. But one of their greatest champions, DeSantis, is using his power to wage war on the First Amendment, and they don't seem to mind. Their main interest here is fostering a docile public incapable of questioning American mythology.