Opinion: DeSantis isn’t beacon for Georgia higher education to follow

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 7, known as the Stop Woke bill, in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., on April 22, 2022. He is now targeting woke campuses. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 7, known as the Stop Woke bill, in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., on April 22, 2022. He is now targeting woke campuses. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/TNS)

In a guest column today, Matthew Boedy, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, warns Georgia against following the lead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who wants to limit how and what can be taught in public college classrooms.

Boedy is conference president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a national organization that represents the interests of college and university faculty members.

By Matthew Boedy

Many have asked me if what is happening to Florida’s higher education system will happen in Georgia.

For those not following the news in the Sunshine State, Gov. Ron DeSantis has fired trustees at one school and replaced them with allies who have announced plans to fire many if not all professors. Lawmakers aligned with the governor have also filed bills to decimate tenure and radically change the state’s curriculum. He has also pushed through policy changes that allow the state to change accreditors when he and his allies don’t like the opinions of the accreditors.

In recent years, a few Georgia lawmakers have pushed this kind of “culture war” agenda onto higher education. Some have looked into “white privilege” in college curriculum and diversity, equity and inclusion funding. Those efforts haven’t translated into bills or laws. But last year’s “divisive concepts” bill did become law. Higher education was initially included in that bill. While lawmakers came to their senses and removed higher education, my K-12 colleagues still face the absurdity.

Yet Florida beckons like a siren call. I’m not talking about ambulances but auditory temptations. Siren call is an allusion to the great epic “The Odyssey.” As a reminder from your ninth grade literature exam, in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” the hero Odysseus escapes the “danger” of the siren’s song by “stopping the ears of his crew with wax so that they were deaf.” Ears open, our hero “had himself tied to the mast so that he would not be able to steer the ship off its course.”

Mathew Boedy

Credit: Peggy Cozart

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Credit: Peggy Cozart

I use that allusion on purpose because Gov. DeSantis and his allies think Florida college students will turn out to be bad citizens if they don’t engage with the “Western literary tradition” more.

That quote comes from Florida House Bill 999, which sets out to define standards for “general education” or the “core” curriculum all college students must take. The bill states “communication” courses “must afford students the ability to communicate effectively, including the ability to write clearly and engage in public speaking, through engagement with the Western literary tradition.”

The bill is addressing the course I teach, known as first year writing courses. Any instructor of writing would applaud the standards until they read the mandate to engage (perhaps solely) that tradition. This mandate is intended to nod to President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission that promoted similar ideas. Clearly then this is an attempt to not only bypass faculty expertise and their academic freedom, but promote a specific tradition viewed by many “anti-woke” conservatives as under attack.

Few if any public colleges mandate such a tradition in first year writing. The University of Florida’s catalog description for its first year writing courses mentions those abilities but not the literary tradition. The University of Georgia’s version and the course at UNG, where I teach, echo that description.

Those courses are part of our state’s “core curriculum” as mandated by the Board of Regents. Before the pandemic, when the regents and University System leaders were thinking of changing that curriculum, they didn’t seek to edit the description of the writing course. They in essence didn’t take the path Florida has.

And I don’t think the regents and system leaders will. I don’t think the board wants to weaken the economic engine and academic reputation of our state.

The question is whether Georgia lawmakers will follow Florida. If they are thinking about it, I want our state lawmakers to understand how the value of a writing course can be diminished by such a mandate.

Proponents seem to think having students merely read and write about the great Western books will somehow instill in them Western values. But that somehow is implied: They want faculty to teach these values explicitly. Their values.

But in a writing course, the values are the skills. And the skills are content-neutral. It’s important to read our nation’s founding documents and write about the literary and historical landscape that grounded our nation. Students do that in other courses. In writing courses, students learn how to do those other courses.

Professors of writing teach the values of reading and writing. We don’t instill explicit political values, contrary to the myth that we indoctrinate. That is what Gov. DeSantis seems to want — indoctrination and a mandate of his values.

Maybe the governor and Florida lawmakers need a Georgia history lesson lest they become us.

Our state’s higher education institutions were kneecapped by Gov. Eugene Talmadge in the 1940s. As the New Georgia Encyclopedia notes, his “firing of professors, administrators, and members of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia generated a storm of adverse publicity throughout the nation and led” the state to lose accreditation.

DeSantis is doing a Talmadge. He is trying to make Florida into Georgia. Not Georgia in 2023, but the 1940s version. The run on the University System “proved to be Talmadge’s worst political blunder” as he lost the next year. But DeSantis just won a second term in a landslide.

Georgia lawmakers, as you end this session and survey the political landscape before the next one, don’t be tempted by this Florida seduction. We already heard that siren song and sent our higher education ship off course. And paid for it dearly. Let’s show that we have learned and applied our own history. That is a tradition we should teach.