What You Think You Know About Colleges and Universities Is Wrong

(This was originally published over on my Patreon page. I'm posting it here for two reasons. First, DeSantis continues to be a belligerent, anti-education jerk, including blaming the Silicon Valley Bank failure on diversity. And, second, well, to get you to subscribe to the Patreon.)

To listen to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other politicians attack the curricula of colleges and universities in their states and in the country as a whole, one could come away with the clear impression that a college student in the United States is subject to a nonstop barrage of critical race theory; enforced diversity, equity, and inclusion; and indoctrination into a liberal ideology that says white, straight males are evil and need to be repressed in favor of gender-noncomforming people of color. If that sounds like hyperbole to you, all you need to do is spend five minutes watching a conservative news network or listening to right-wing podcasts, and you’ll hear that left-wing professors are the doom and damnation of the American dream. 

Speaking as a tenured liberal with over 30 years of experience in higher education who is a current  department chair, I can tell you that this version of university classroom life is a perverse fantasy. It has very little to do with the experiences of the overwhelming number of students at the overwhelming number of colleges and universities in this country. Simply put, what the right-wing fabulists want their viewers, listeners, and readers to think is a lie. 

Most schools are not Harvard or Oberlin. Most are like mine, which is part of the City University of New York and which teaches about 10,000 mostly working and middle-class students, most of whom have jobs and families, and many of whom are the first in their families to go to college. Yes, all the students start with similar general education courses. For example, before they get to their major, students are required to take two courses in composition, where they learn to write at a college-level, including how to argue using researched evidence. The topics vary from professor to professor. The students take multiple math, science, and foreign language courses, along with a selection of basic social science and a couple of humanities classes. 

We do require that students take courses within these requirements that cover Pluralism and Diversity as a category, as well as Contemporary World. That sounds scary to the conservative overseers of the curriculum who must think this is where the forced CRT and cis-gender confessions happen, but, again, the reality of it is far different. The choices for P&D include classes like The Japanese Economy or Modern Art in Latin America or The History of Education in the United States. Yes, there are courses like Islam: Religion and Culture, as well as Gender and Sexuality. But no single topic is required. And while a student is completing this General Education curriculum, they move on to majors and minors, and most will never have their hair mussed by Queer Theory or African American Studies. 

To put it plainly, this is how it is at virtually every college and university. Of course, there are exceptions, generally at private schools. But even at the college that has become Gov. DeSantis’s bete noire, the New College of Florida, the current curriculum simply doesn’t support all the allegations made against it. DeSantis said, “The mission has been, I think, more into the DEI, CRT, the gender ideology rather than what a liberal arts education should be.”

But the catalog of the New College clearly shows that its mission is to give students a broad education along with the specialization of their majors. Out of ten classes in distribution areas in the Chart Your Course general education curriculum, one is in “Diverse Perspectives.” Within majors like Economics and Chemistry, no course that might be considered “woke” is included. Within majors like English and Political Science, of course, students can choose courses in the literature of “Globalized Gentrification” or “Freedom and Slavery in Political Thought.” But they can also take courses in ancient Greek literature or the U.S. Constitution. In addition, by Florida law, all students have to take a course or pass a test that demonstrates Civic Literacy, and NCF offers several paths to accomplish that requirement. 

The point here is not to reduce the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion as ideas that benefit students who will have to work in a diverse world. Even the evangelical Christian Liberty University has an Office of Equity and Inclusion. It has a Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President of Equity and Inclusion because the school recognizes the benefit of these kinds of programs. It’s strange that conservative colleges and universities like Liberty or Pepperdine aren’t condemned for their DEI efforts. Meanwhile, DeSantis demanded that all the public schools of higher education in Florida outline their spending on these kinds of programs. It amounted to less than 1 percent for almost all the schools. 

But it’s simply a lie-filled attack on higher education in the United States to proclaim that all the students are being inundated with left-wing ideology. A small percentage of students at a small percentage of schools are exposed to anything remotely controversial. Those who condemn “censorship” or other perceived thought crimes concentrate on obvious examples of over-reach, like the Islamic art incident at Hamline University.

Students have to seek out classes where anything approaching critical race theory is being taught, classes like mine, to be honest. When I dove into the subject while discussing Amiri Baraka’s play Dutchman in an American Drama class, the students were fascinated. Several said they had never thought about American culture or the legal system from that perspective and it was eye-opening. I didn’t demand that they had to believe what I was presenting, which were mostly facts about racism in their country. 

I simply told them the historical background to the play, history that I’m sure a few students already knew. Perhaps, though, the ones that didn’t know had their perspective changed or at least had new information to consider. Isn’t that one of the things a college education is supposed to do? Challenge students? Expand what they know and maybe what they think?

That’s at least part of what DeSantis and, for lack of a better phrase, the anti-woke forces really want to stop.

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