Florida’s contempt for (higher) education deepens

Parents with the best of intentions confuse an education with the prelude to a career. In their minds high school, college, even elementary school to a degree serve as long programs for the acquiring of the piece of paper that will get their children a well-paying job. Indifference to their children’s course load is the best posture if proud photos at a sweltering commencement ceremony make the expense worth it.

Kids, if you want elders to reach for the chardonnay and poppers, tell’em you want to be a writer, or, god help you, an “artist” with all the ambiguity and sexual deviancy implied in this portmanteau, or, saints preserve you, a “dancer.” In my experience not even parents have thought through their fears: they don’t assume the would-be artist will sleep under an I-95 overpass or mooch off them. Rather, inherited stereotypes and cultural attitudes toward any “field” not requiring casual business attire eight hours a day generate the anxiety; after twenty years of teaching, I know that if a liberal arts or English degree somehow ensured these majors, say, a $60,000 check from a publisher upon graduation more parents would stop squirming in the sofa before remarking, Well, that’s fine, but why don’t you major in something practical? You can still write and paint!

Yesterday Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida (the state with the prettiest name!), further polished his gleaming credentials with the C-PAC crowd by signing legislation ostensibly to punish “intellectually repressive” higher ed institutions. Included in the bill is a student survey:

The survey will discern “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” in public universities and colleges, and seeks to find whether students, faculty and staff “feel free to express beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom,” according to the bill.

The measure, which goes into effect July 1, does not specify what will be done with the survey results. But DeSantis and Sen. Ray Rodrigues, the sponsor of the bill, suggested on Tuesday that budget cuts could be looming if universities and colleges are found to be “indoctrinating” students.

Anyone who has spoken to an eighteen-year-old of any gender knows the word “indoctrinating” carries cinder blocks on its back. Economics courses on Marxism, history courses that review the root causes of the Spanish Civil War or explain Watergate — do they get scrutiny? However, an MBA course implicitly championing the free market won’t need other points of view. The nature of education — elementary, secondary, and higher — is to present “competing ideas and perspectives.” If anything, education is like political journalism too beholden to on-the-one hand/on-the-other-hand-ing subjects which require less ambiguity.

But if readers have ever heard DeSantis answer questions or even address a crowd of sycophants they will lament the existence of an Ivy League system that produced graduates as insecure, tongue-tied, and querulous as my governor: if I told you he worked in a Target garden center rather than attending college you’d believe me, and I intend no slight to Target employees, most of whom are more articulate and certainly more compassionate. What students learn in higher ed matters less than the punishment he can exact on the li’brals and professionals employed by a system he would burn to the ground:

Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, asked Rodrigues, R-Estero, if the information could be “used to punish or reward colleges or universities?” She wondered: “Might faculty be promoted or fired because of their political beliefs?”

Rodrigues said no. But the language in the bill, and the statements made Tuesday, do not back that assertion. 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.

What is specified is that the state university system’s Board of Governors and the State Board of Education will be required to select or create an “objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey,” presumably through the boards’ public procurement or rule-making process.

I had trouble before the pandemic forcing students to get off their phones long enough so they wouldn’t ask a question for which I’d already given the answer; imagine the bad faith of a DeSantis and a Ray Rodrigues thinking a course or three will turn them into BLM members instead of mendicants before their parents’ mercy.

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