Public education has long been a battlefield in the U.S., from the Scopes trial to desegregation to climate change. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s recent demands for greater control over public education—and students’ bodies—in the guise of “parent’s rights” accelerates this conflict, rejecting the importance of learning as a public good in itself in favor of promoting conformity and uncritical thinking.
As a historian of fascism and Italian fascist education, I find the moves to exert more power over education disturbingly familiar. Even ignoring the obvious harm DeSantis’s campaign inflicts on Florida’s students—already detailed by numerous experts—the effort to constrict the information available to students mirrors fascist ambitions in important ways and threatens the very democratic foundations its proponents claim to champion.
History shows such efforts harm us all.
Last summer, Florida lawmakers enacted two laws limiting access to information in public education. The first, the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees, or Stop W.O.K.E. Act, prohibits teachers and teaching materials from promoting the idea that anyone is inherently oppressive or responsible for the actions of others who share “the same race, color, sex, or national origin.” The second, the now infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law, formally the Parental Rights in Education Act, bans “classroom instruction” in sexual orientation or gender identity before fourth grade.
Several other bills moving through the Florida House of Representatives and Senate are designed to further stifle critical thinking, debate and broader awareness of the society we live in—all under the banner “Freedom from Indoctrination.” Examples include banning “classroom instruction” (or recognition) of nonbinary gender identities and sexual orientations more widely; legally defining “sex” as binary and “immutable”; and removing all sexual health education from elementary and middle school curricula.
Critics including scholars and politicians have decried such measures not merely as symptoms of America’s “culture wars,” but as distinctly “fascist.” I am often frustrated by the ways “fascism” is applied uncritically as a substitute for “something I don’t like.” Nonetheless, highlighting the parallels between the ambitions of DeSantis and those of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini exposes the shared threat to democracy.
At the heart of fascist political strategy was the expansion of state control over public and private life under the facades of popular support and common good.