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Regaining lost ground in academia

Gov. DeSantis shows how it can be done

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks in Tallahassee, Fla., after being sworn in to begin his second term on Jan. 3, 2023. Associated Press/Photo by Lynne Sladky, File

Regaining lost ground in academia
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When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he was replacing half the board of trustees of Florida’s state honors college, New College of Florida, with staunch conservatives, it seemed a radical move. But why? For much of human history, education has been an essentially conservative enterprise: the task of summing up the collected wisdom of the ages and handing it on to the next generation, so that they too might know how to live well within the world by walking old paths.

How strange it is, then, that for the past couple generations in America, education at nearly every level has become a radical progressive enterprise, dedicated to deconstruction and demolition of inherited norms, hallowed truths, and cherished beauties.

Conservatives themselves must surely take some of the blame. Obsessed for several decades with how to make government smaller, and skeptical whether education was even part of government’s job, they largely ignored education agencies and trusted the private sector with the sacred task of transmitting society’s shared values to the rising generation. Into this void, progressives eagerly stepped with their radical plans to remake society.

The results are not hard to spot. It turns out that filling a young person’s ears from age 5 to 21 with exhortations to “question authority,” including every established canon of morality or aesthetic excellence, has profound implications for their ability to flourish as an individual or a member of society. We have reaped a harvest of broken homes, gender dysphoria, racial conflict, and historical amnesia. It is heartening, then, to see conservatives beginning to fight back.

Gov. DeSantis, who has made a name for himself over the past year as perhaps the most popular and most successful conservative politician in the country, has been quick to recognize that education is a critical battleground in the culture war, and willing to take the offensive in an area where too many conservatives are content to play defense. In 2021, he undertook a series of initiatives to restrict the teaching of critical race theory in Florida schools, and in 2022 signed the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, which restricts teaching about sexual orientation from kindergarten to third grade. He has shown equal interest in the reform of state higher education; the University of Florida’s recent establishment of the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education, and hiring of former senator Ben Sasse as its new president, likely reflect DeSantis’s influence.

The fact is that education is one area where neutrality is impossible.

The board overhaul at New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college with a progressive bent and outsized influence, is but the latest evidence of DeSantis’s determination to use state power to pursue a positive conservative agenda. The new board members include renowned anti-CRT activist Christopher Rufo, Claremont Review editor Charles Kesler, and Hillsdale professor Matthew Spalding. Indeed, DeSantis’s Chief of Staff, James Uthmeier, alarmed progressives further by stating that the goal of the appointments was to make New College “a Hillsdale of the South.”

Critics will protest that moves such as this represent an attempted ideological takeover of what is meant to be a neutral space for intellectual inquiry, and a threat to academic freedom. But such complaints ring hollow given progressives’ own nakedly ideological approach to higher education and frequent campaigns to cancel and silence conservative scholars. The fact is that education is one area where neutrality is impossible: If your entire task and purpose is to teach truth, beauty, and goodness, well then it matters a great deal what you think is true, beautiful, and good. Least of all will educators be neutral who deny that objective truth even exists!

Too often we think of the role of government as essentially negative: don’t do this, don’t do that, and you’ll go to jail if you don’t pay your taxes. But in every era of human history, much of the work of government has been positive—using the collective resources, will, and energy of a society to promote and pursue certain shared goods. Among these, few are so indispensable or precious as education, without which society could not continue at all. Conservatives need to learn from leaders like DeSantis to step up and use the considerable powers of state governments to ensure that publicly funded educational institutions actually educate for the public good.

To be sure, we should not replace liberal indoctrination with conservative indoctrination; especially at the level of higher education, it is important for a free society to allow space for a robust debate between opposing ideas. However, given the extent of the progressive stranglehold over higher education these days, any effort to bring more conservative leadership into public universities is likely to promote rather than restrict viewpoint diversity. And if we really believe in the truths on which our nation was founded, we must not shy away from the great task of instilling them in the next generation.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for 10 years as president of The Davenant Institute and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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