In order to take control of a country, zealots have to undermine not just people who may have been educated to be independent thinkers, but the very idea and legitimacy of a liberal education. Those intent upon spreading belief in “the Big Lie,” for instance, must attack the institutions committed to truth-seeking and a commitment to verifiable evidence.
So we see the escalating attacks on knowledge, on science , on expertise. We see a co-ordinated effort to replace the very concept of education with the far less threatening goal of job training.
And we see unremitting attacks on the nation’s universities.
I spent twenty-one years as a faculty member at a public university, and I would be the last person to claim that all is well in academia. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms that can–indeed, should–be leveled: bloated administrations, too-cozy relationships with moneyed donors, a knee-jerk tendency to “cancel” proponents of currently unpopular positions, and a depressing willingness to equate academic success with job placement statistics.
That said, the degree to which the GOP is waging war on education–at both the public school and college levels– seems unprecedented.
I’ve previously posted about former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to destroy the University of Wisconsin–including his attempt to change the century-old mission of the University system by removing language about the “search for truth” and “improving the human condition” and replacing those phrases with “meeting the state’s workforce needs.”
At least Walker understood the need to be sneaky. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis–a poster boy for today’s GOP–hasn’t bothered to hide his animus for science, truth and higher education. The results have been ugly.
A special panel created by the faculty at the University of Florida has completed a review of the academic environment there, and what it has to say is not flattering. As The Miami Herald reports, the report shows that academics in Florida live in a literal state of fear; one where they don’t dare tell the truth out of fear of reprisals from Gov. Ron DeSantis. That’s particularly true when it comes to revealing the facts about COVID-19.
The report makes it clear that researchers felt a great deal of outside pressure in preparing research information for publication. That sometimes meant that information was delayed, or not published at all. In some cases, scientists were told not to reveal their affiliation with the university when releasing information, or to take the University of Florida name off presentations.
All because they were not allowed to do anything that could be viewed as criticizing DeSantis, or policies related to COVID-19. Faculty in the university’s Health Department were warned that funding might be “in jeopardy if they did not adopt the state’s stance on pandemic regulations in opinion articles.”
DeSantis’ attacks went well beyond his approach to COVID.
Course descriptions, websites, and other materials concerning the study of race and privilege had to be hidden, altered, or removed. The persecution in this area became so ridiculous that instructors were told:
“The terms ‘critical’ and ‘race’ could not appear together in the same sentence or document.”
Much of this bullying has occurred “under the radar,” but a few months ago, national media reported that the University of Florida was prohibiting three professors from testifying as experts in a lawsuit challenging a new law restricting voting rights. The prohibition was justified by the the University on the grounds that “it goes against the school’s interest by conflicting with the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.”
There was a sufficient outcry that the University reversed that decision, but it is blindingly obvious that less well-publicized efforts to “get along” with the Governor remain in place.
It isn’t only Florida.
At a time when University Presidents are chosen more for their fundraising abilities than for their devotion to scholarship, some are using their authority to simply remove inconvenient scholarship from their institutions. Here in Indianapolis, the administration of Marian University has simply eliminated its department of political science.
The school’s administration has failed to offer a rationale for removing political science, a program with as many declared majors as most other liberal arts programs on campus —and which you would think is especially important, given the troubled state of U.S. political life–and especially since the faculty vociferously opposed the decision. The linked report notes that no other major was targeted for elimination.
The dispassionate pursuit of science, evidence and “inconvenient” knowledge is being targeted by ideologues, autocrats and their facilitators. To the extent that they are successful, this country is in deep, deep trouble.