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Florida’s Attack on Education Should Ring Alarm Bells at Harvard

By Clyve Lawrence, Crimson Opinion Writer
Clyve Lawrence ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House.

Intellectual diversity and academic freedom have long been crucial tenets of education. But these ideals are under attack in Florida — a development that should worry us all.

On the first day of Black History Month, the College Board announced it was altering the curriculum for its Advanced Placement course in African American Studies after Florida’s Department of Education rejected the course days earlier, arguing it violated Florida law and “lack[ed] educational value.” Seemingly succumbing to the department’s demands to come “into compliance,” the College Board stripped away and minimized many scholars and subjects central to Blackness in the United States, from Black feminism to Black Lives Matter.

This dispute is the latest ideological swing against education in Florida. As the state plans to overhaul its higher education system by eliminating diversity and equity programs, Florida teachers are hiding their classroom books to avoid felony charges for controversial material.

What constitutes “compliance” with these increasingly draconian laws in Florida is unclear. One thing is clear, though: Many conservatives are loving it.

At the helm of this effort is the culture warrior Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who appears to be throwing the Republican base red meat before a rumored 2024 presidential bid. Indeed, the subjects cut from the AP African American Studies curriculum read like a laundry list of Republican complaints about “wokeness” in education. Riding a dominant re-election win, DeSantis declared in his victory speech, “Florida is where woke goes to die.”

In some ways, this is nothing new. Conservatism in the United States has long had a strain of anti-intellectualism. In the 1970s, conservative leaders like Paul Weyrich steered the Republican Party to the right, targeting movements prevalent in academic circles, like civil rights. The resulting New Right movement would carry Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump to the White House. Today, driven by conspiratorial fears and a denigration of the pursuit of knowledge, many conservatives reject what they perceive as “out-of-touch” social elites and the academic institutions they occupy.

I am the first to admit that elitism exerts itself in tangible ways here at Harvard and, undoubtedly, at many prestigious institutions of higher learning. But the recent push from DeSantis — a graduate of Harvard Law School himself — distorts and places undue blame on academic institutions for infecting young people with “woke” ideologies.

And now, anti-intellectualism is the letter of the law in the state of Florida. This should set off alarm bells for anyone who cares about academic freedom.

Schools and universities have a longstanding tradition of fostering curiosity by promoting intellectual diversity. This tradition is a cornerstone of academic freedom and an essential component of a well-rounded education. Courses like African American Studies bring new insights to our understanding of the world, allowing students to explore its complexities, challenge conventional wisdom, and form their own opinions. Politically motivated efforts to threaten this vital tradition should disturb all Americans, regardless of viewpoint.

When DeSantis appoints a blatantly partisan board of trustees at the New College of Florida and calls on teachers to clear books from classroom shelves, everyone should pay attention. This rogue movement is not only a blatant attempt to impose a singularly conservative agenda on education but also a threat to the very essence of what makes education meaningful.

At Harvard, we have a long history of trying to foster intellectual diversity and promote academic freedom. And however uneasy the development, I genuinely believe in upholding these principles.

So let’s be clear. It’s one thing to support robust academic free speech. It’s another to reject legitimate history because you disagree with it.

Consider DeSantis’ tirade against a proposed AP African American Studies section on Queer Theory.

“Who would say that an important part of Black history is Queer Theory?” DeSantis asked.

Students who have learned the likes of bell hooks, Marsha P. Johnson, and James A. Baldwin should scoff at his statement.

Ironically, DeSantis is applying the exact kind of pressure he claims he wants to eliminate — a sort of intimidation aimed at coercing educational institutions to conform to particular ideologies. Instead of allowing students the choice to take the course as initially designed, the state hides behind upholding the values of “Western civilization” — at the expense of Black literature.

Black history is American history, even the parts that conservatives find unpalatable. Purging Black scholars and salient racial topics like Black Lives Matter is a direct assault on academic free speech and intellectual freedom throughout the United States. Unfortunately, the College Board seems to have allowed DeSantis to do so.

While this crusade belongs to Governor DeSantis and his allies, we would all be wise to renew our commitment to academic freedom. Even at Harvard, it’s simply too easy to avoid and even eschew uncomfortable views. But there is immense value in exposing students to varied perspectives, including those on the right.

I grew up in the South. While joining people for school and church, I was frequently exposed to conservative ideas with which I disagreed. I still vehemently oppose the tenets of conservatism; nonetheless, because of that exposure, I saw my peers as people first, not their ideas.

Only by committing ourselves to the principles of intellectual freedom can we promote a more informed, diverse, and inclusive understanding of the world and its complexities. It is our responsibility to protect the legacy of intellectual diversity at Harvard and in higher education as a whole. So when it comes to what’s happening in Florida, we must stop the purge. But we shouldn’t stop there. Let’s cultivate a rich, intellectual environment anywhere we can.

Clyve Lawrence ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House.

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