The Attack on Higher Education Heats up from Simmer toward Boil
by Neil H. Buchanan
Pending legislation in Florida would, if enacted, make it illegal to teach Economics in the state's universities. It is not being described that way, of course, but what else could one conclude about a bill that prohibits the state's colleges and universities from offering general education courses "with a curriculum based on unproven, theoretical or exploratory content"?
If that sounds like snark, it is. It is also true even on its own terms, however, because even the most true-believer orthodox economists -- the ones who insist that theirs is the only true science outside of the STEM curriculum, making the field in which I earned most of my advanced degrees "the queen of the social sciences" -- would certainly embrace the idea that economics as they understand it is both theoretical and exploratory. Many of the rest of us know that it is also unproven (and unprovable), but even setting that aside, the people who glory in the idea that "theory" is the most exalted of the sub-fields of economics -- intellectually akin to theoretical physics -- and that they are "exploring" the contours of modern economies, have habitually violated two of the three prohibited items on a list that is connected with an "or." Oops.
Oh, and speaking of theoretical physics ... Gone from Florida's GenEd courses too, right?
No one imagines, of course, that this is where things will go. The new legislation -- HB 999, which might more accurately be called HB 666 -- is all about extending and intensifying the attacks on academic freedom and making Florida's universities teach only content that is approved by political appointees of the Republican governor.
So although it can be fun to point to the clumsy wording and the illogic behind such legislation, this needs to be taken seriously. This column will begin to explain what is happening, and what might happen next. Unfortunately, it will almost surely be necessary to write many more such columns.
It has been more than a year since I wrote about an earlier salvo in the right's culture-war-inspired targeting of Florida's universities. (The most recent of four columns, with links to the earlier ones, is here.) My silence since then has not been a matter of having nothing to write about, because the political heat has only increased in the intervening time, as I will explain below. The problem is, in fact, that the attacks on academic and intellectual freedom are intense and relentless, and there seems to be nothing that anyone can do to stop them.
After all, Florida's Republicans now hold super-majorities that they gerrymandered into existence in both houses of the state legislature. Legislators do not in fact need those super-majorities, of course, because they are hardly going to find themselves needing to override the veto of their White House-eyeing governor. And because he won reelection in 2022 -- with the national press treating his win as "impressive" and a "show of political appeal" rather than the result of rank (and blatant) voter suppression, including what was effectively a legislative override of the state's own constitution -- everyone in power in the state capital is rowing in the same direction.
The courts are of no use, because the state's judiciary is dominated by the same people who put the legislative and executive branches in current hands, while the federal Eleventh Circuit has a majority not just of Republican appointees but specifically of Trump appointees. There are some federal district judges (including the chief judge of the Northern District of Florida) who are trying to hold the line on the rule of law. But of course, there are other federal judges who are willing to say that up is down and lies are true. On top of all of that, the United States Supreme Court hardly seems likely to step in to save higher education.
With all of the levers of power in the hands of people who are willing to turn them to fully politicized ends, it might seem that the only response remaining is to protest. Of course, Florida's governor in 2021 signed an "anti-riot bill" that "grants civil
immunity to people who decide to drive their cars into protesters who
are blocking a road." And even if protesters manage to stay inside the free-speech zones, the people in power treat any protests as proof that they have successfully provoked the lefty snowflakes When students at the flagship university campus protested the appointment of the campus's president, the result was bad press coverage and scoldings from administrators.
Again, plenty has been going on to write about. There was the "Stop WOKE Act," signed last year, which treats as legal discrimination any training of students or employees that "espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels such student or employee to believe" any on a list of eight sloppy and vague categories of offense, for example:
7. A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.