Imagine you lived in a country where its leader has declared certain topics off-limits. As a professor at a German University, you are prohibited from teaching the Holocaust. As a teacher in Turkey, you will face punishment if you discuss with your students the Armenian Genocide. You’re an expert in these subjects. You have spent much of your life studying them. But now you find yourself hauled before the authorities, your livelihood, your career, and your freedom in jeopardy.
Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Good thing it cannot happen here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Except that it is. Yesterday I learned that a professor at a state university in Florida was informed by the school’s administration that it had searched through their email account without advance notice, and sent several of their messages to the state legislature because they included information about diversity, equity and inclusion.
Such a state of affairs should horrify every freedom-loving American, and every American with a modicum of familiarity with the First Amendment, but I doubt it will. Americans, in general, have been taught well to feel little sympathy for educators, too often depicted slanderously as part of the nation’s cultural and economic elite. They have been taught for a generation to hate professors who taught “multiculturalism,” who presented “politically correct” topics, and now matters related to “DEI” and, especially, “Critical Race Theory.” These fears have been sparked by people like Rush Limbaugh and Lynne Cheney in the 1990s, and more recently by Ivy-League demagogues like Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and Ron DeSantis, who studied history at Yale and then earned a law degree at Harvard. DeSantis, I suspect, knows he is full of shit, and he doesn’t care.
I teach at a state college in New York. If my state had a law like Florida’s, I would be in a lot of trouble. They would not have to search my emails to for incriminating evidence. It’s on this blog, and on my Twitter account. We need to resist these hypocrites, even though you and I both know they won’t stand and fight. We need to look for opportunities to ask De Santis when the book burnings are scheduled to begin. When teachers face criminal penalties for presenting sound interpretations of the past, its only a matter of time.
Look, in my classes I make a historical argument, based on years of research and reading. I tell my students that the United States could not have assumed its current shape without a systematic program of Indigenous dispossession, involving fraud and violence, from sea to shining sea. That is not the whole course, but it is fundamental to the historic experience of Indigenous Peoples in North America. The students read the evidence upon which that reasoning is based. they analyze it, struggle through it, and ask questions. This is the sort of history that De Santis hates because, he claims, it will teach students to hate their country.
I have taught for a couple of decades. Any experienced and conscientious college teacher will tell you that there is no better way to lose an audience of young people than to preach dogma to them. They will tune you out quickly and completely.
You know what is more likely than a history lesson to teach children to hate their country? Lying to them about their country’s past. Every semester since I began teaching 29 years ago, I have been approached by students who tell me that they cannot believe they had never been taught this or that before. My response, for all these years, has been the same: “That’s not surprising. I hear that a lot.” I ask them, “Why do you think you were not taught this material in the past?” What possible motives might educators following state curricula have for hiding these subjects from them? I ask them to think about it, seriously.
Let’s be clear. Ron DeSantis and his Florida supporters do not want these subjects taught because they are racists who believe that only stories that promote a sterile and white-centric narrative of the past are acceptable. DeSantis presides over a state in which non-Hispanic whites are less than 60% of the population. Soon it will be a majority minority state. He does not want young Floridians to learn, critically and thoroughly, the history of the people who increasingly are their neighbors.
DeSantis has a history degree from one of the most elite, Ivy League universities in the United States. He knows perfectly well that history is not supposed to be a mere collection of facts. He knows, or should know if he listened in class, that history can be unsettling and disturbing. He should know, if he listened in class, that history is about asking and answering questions about the past. We conduct research to answer those questions. We collect and sift through the evidence. From that evidence, we draw conclusions and construct arguments. De Santis fears that these arguments will make children feel uncomfortable, ashamed of their white skin. It is difficult to think of an easier tell for detecting racism.
Because what De Santis won’t do is debate the evidence. To use an earlier example, if I argue that the United States could not have taken its shape without a systematic program of Indigenous dispossession, your obligation as a person who thinks and reasons about matters historical is not to say, “I don’t like that,” or “it makes me feel uncomfortable,” but to argue. If you think I am wrong, fine. Make your case. Explain why I am wrong and present evidence for a better interpretation of the past. This DeSantis and the conservative political leaders who think like him will not do. Not only are they racists. They are cowards, too. As citizens we need to let voters know that every chance we get.