Usually, a public university system’s decision to drop one required undergraduate course would not trigger fears about the ideologically driven destruction of American higher education. Unless, of course, the public university system in question was located in Florida. Unless, of course, those spearheading the plan were Florida Republicans. And unless the class in question was "The Principles of Sociology."
This strike at sociology is very on-brand for the Florida GOP. We know about DeSantis’ ongoing crusade to commandeer all leadership positions at New College of Florida. Elsewhere, a proverbial Florida Man (with the checkered past and absence of relevant credentials that such an identity entails) has been installed as the leader of South Florida State College. The American Association of University Professors chronicled this and other outrageous Sunshine State power grabs in a report so full of absurd details that it reads like a campus novel.
Those attacks on schools and professors have involved a very top-down approach. De-platforming a gateway sociology course, by contrast, is awfully bottom-up. Why wage this particular micro-battle?
In one sense, the right is simply following its script. Movement conservatism is (paradoxically) determined to demonstrate that it can disrupt any long-standing American tradition, be it the peaceful transition of power, settled SCOTUS case law, or a college course your grandma likely took. Sociology 101 has been a staple of college liberal arts curricula since the 1950s. Millions of undergrads have taken some iteration of it over the past eight decades.
I was one of them. My quirky college instructor could see the hidden causes of complex social problems the way a clairvoyant could see dead people. Did that guy really claim that sociology — and only sociology — could make sense of the Salem witch trials?
He did! All those accused of sorcery, he observed, were related to mercantile capitalists, and all their accusers were related to agrarian clans. The agriculturalists of Salem Village mistook the members of a rising (and destructive) economic class for the devil himself. (I later learned he was riffing on the brilliant thesis of Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum in “Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft.”)
Unable to get the craggy melody of sociology out of my head, I later pursued a doctorate. I taught introductory sociology, inflicting my own clairvoyance upon the youth. And, I respectfully submit, while the Florida GOP is completely mistaken about this discipline, it has good reason to be afraid.
The right is gunning for sociology because it believes the discipline inculcates left-wing ideology. This is incorrect. For starters, there are deeply conservative traditions within social theory. Figures like Alexis de Tocqueville and Talcott Parsons are also taught in intro classes, and at any rate, an instructor wouldn’t focus exclusively on critiques of conservatives, per se. Rather, sociologists try to get undergrads to think radically differently — about everything.
They relentlessly question individualistic explanations of human behavior. Maybe, they argue, psychology doesn’t have all the answers. Maybe your depression has nothing to do with your brain chemistry, your difficult childhood, or any of the other sad things that 157 million people confessed to Elmo on X. The great Emile Durkheim once argued that even something as “personal” as a suicide attempt might be the consequence of vast, impersonal social currents about which the person is completely unaware. Hit the books, Elmo!
The GOP has certainly noticed that sociology trains its gaze on class, that forgotten Holy Ghost in the intersectional trinity of race, class and gender. No other discipline reflects so menacingly on elites, the wealthy and particularly those in power. What the currently empowered Florida GOP fails to understand is that the same skills that can skewer right-wing donors are equally capable of skewering, for example, left-wing culture snobs and intellectuals.
A great deal of sociology deals with data. I’m no quant or statistical modeler, but it would be remiss if I didn’t remind Florida's Commissioner Diaz of an “inconvenient fact” (to quote sociologist Max Weber): Florida is ditching its sociology requirement ostensibly in order to “focus on preparing students for high-demand, high-wage jobs.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, when it comes to high-wage jobs, Florida languishes in the middle of the pack (blue California, New York and Washington are powerhouses in this regard).
This inconvenient fact won’t bring sociology back into the core. But in my glum musings on American higher education, I have always stressed that professors must stand together to save their institutions. So, to the historians whose course on the American founding is to replace the sociology offering: How about a little solidarity? Help us ensure that students recognize the importance of sociology’s tools both in the workforce and in life. Help your students to understand how power works — and how Florida’s Republicans are using and abusing theirs.