I’M EXHAUSTED. I’m exhausted because I teach U.S. history, including African American and LGBTQ+ history, at a public university in Florida. Here Governor Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers are dismantling higher education at breakneck speed, and they’re doing it in part by taking aim at people like me.
DeSantis and Republicans in the state legislature—not to mention their allies and imitators in a slew of other states—want voters to believe that professors teaching subjects like history, English, and gender studies are hellbent on indoctrinating their children. This line of political attack echoes accusations that queer people are “grooming” children simply by existing, which is also a central plank of the conservative culture wars agenda. Last week the Florida legislature expanded its “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits instruction on sexual and gender identity, to cover kindergarten through twelfth grade. But just as learning about queer people doesn’t make kids queer, nor does being exposed to new ideas lead them toward any particular political ideology. We don’t tell students what to think; we teach them how to think. This includes how to identify and examine their own assumptions, how to ask critical questions, and how to support their points of view with evidence. In any case, our conservative critics vastly overestimate how much power we have over students; on some days it feels like we can barely get them to read the syllabus, much less control their thoughts.
Still, I could not truthfully teach the history of, say, suburbanization in the United States without discussing the ways that federal policy privileged white nuclear families while disadvantaging pretty much everyone else. But under the Stop WOKE Act (signed into law in 2022 and stayed at the college level—for now—by a series of court rulings), teaching what has been well established in historical scholarship would legally constitute “discrimination on the basis of race.”
I also teach intersectionality, a concept rooted in Black feminist thought, which posits that different forms of discrimination, such as racism and sexism, combine to create new forms of marginalization. But I don’t teach it as a “religion,” as right-wing pundit Andrew Sullivan would have readers believe. I don’t demand that all students swear an oath to intersectional feminism on a tattered copy of This Bridge Called My Back. But I do help them to understand the broader historical context for a set of ideas that has gained wide cultural currency in the last decade. What they do with those ideas is up to them. Under House Bill 999, which is winding its way through the state legislature, that pedagogical approach—or any that suggests that racism, sexism, oppression, or privilege are “inherent in the institutions of the United States”—could get me fired.
I’m not exaggerating. I have tenure, which is supposed to guarantee my academic freedom in teaching and research. However, under a new rule approved in late March by the Florida Board of Governors, each faculty member’s tenure case must be reviewed every five years. Those found to be out of “compliance with state laws,” such as those restricting what and how we can teach, will stand to lose their jobs.
In Orwellian fashion, DeSantis is pitching the end of tenure—and, along with it, academic freedom—in Florida as a victory against “intellectual orthodoxy.” But he has also framed it as a necessary move against “unproductive” faculty who constitute “the most significant deadweight costs”in Florida’s public colleges and universities. In this way, he has connected his right-wing war on academic freedom to the pervasive myth that faculty take advantage of the tenure system, becoming lazy and incurious once their jobs are secure. (More on that in a minute.)
In the case of a politically motivated firing, my colleagues and I might count on our faculty union for support. But that, too, is under threat. If DeSantis gets his way, it will soon become much harder for teachers’ unions—including higher education faculty unions—to remain in existence. A proposed bill, which has already passed the Florida Senate, would require union locals to sign up 60 percent (as opposed to the current 50 percent) of eligible faculty as dues-paying members or face decertification. As of late March, as many as two-thirds of teachers’ unions in the state stood to be decertified if the bill passes into law.
All of this is, again, exhausting. These are trying times to be living, much less teaching, in Florida. In education more broadly, Republicans have voted to funnel public money into private education through an expanded school voucher program, and DeSantis has sparred with the College Board over the content of its proposed Advanced Placement course in African American Studies. And the classroom culture wars come on top of everything else: a ban targeting drag shows that has already led to the cancellation of at least one Pride parade; bans on medical care for trans kids and gender-affirming pronouns in schools; a six-week abortion ban; permit-less concealed carry of firearms; and DeSantis’s highly publicized feud with Disney. As my colleague Julio Capó put it during a plenary session at the recent annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, “the strategy is to exhaust us.” And it’s working.