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Ron DeSantis' intellectual apartheid

Jun 08,2023 - Last updated at Jun 08,2023

CAMBRIDGE — “This College Board — nobody elected them to anything.” So said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at a press conference where he threatened to block a new Advanced Placement (college-level) African American Studies class from being offered to the state’s high school students. With his eye on a run for the US presidency in 2024, DeSantis has been alarmingly successful in garnering attention with such race-baiting ploys, positioning himself as “Donald Trump without the baggage”.

As DeSantis stoked his feud with the College Board, several other states, including Virginia, North Dakota, Mississippi and Arkansas, followed Florida’s lead in scrutinising the new course for what they call “divisive” material. Meanwhile, the College Board has revised the proposed curriculum so that it no longer includes contemporary authors (Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Ta-Nehisi Coates) and issues (Black Lives Matter, the case for reparations for slavery) as “required reading”. Moreover, critical race theory (CRT) has been removed altogether, as has use of the key term “systemic”.

This battle over curricula is the latest episode in America’s ongoing culture wars, with DeSantis leading the conservative charge against “wokeness”. According to a tracking project hosted by the UCLA School of Law, more than two dozen states have already adopted measures prohibiting CRT. Similarly, PEN America finds that in the 2021-22 school year, 138 school districts across 32 states banned a total of 1,648 unique book titles; the largest share dealt with LGBTQ+ themes or race.

More recently, DeSantis has set his sights on higher education, in what German Lopez of the New York Times describes as an attempt to create a “Fox News for universities”. Among other things, DeSantis wants to abolish diversity programmes and eliminate tenure protections, which would enable a purge of faculty at public colleges and universities. By packing the board of the New College of Florida with right-wing activists, he has created his own test case for what an “anti-woke” university could look like.

The conservative crusaders claim that they are trying to remove politics from education, and particularly from the teaching of history. But, because all curricula are curated, none is apolitical. In attempting to rid education of “wokeness”, today’s conservatives are effectively advocating for segregated content and perspectives in the curriculum. At stake is not just what belongs in the canon, the essential material of any introductory course, but who decides.

Choices about what to include in a curriculum determine how each new generation of students comes to see a subject. Since lines must be drawn somewhere, certain perspectives are exalted (and duly reproduced by students), while others end up as supplementary topics, and many more are left out entirely. These are the lines that separate the paradigm from the periphery, the visible from the invisible. They are what determine whose voices are heard, and whose are silenced. Such distinctions can be matters of existential cultural importance.

This problem is deep-rooted. For 500-old years, a region that occupies 8 per cent of the world’s landmass, Europe, controlled roughly 80 per cent of the world, granting it monopoly power to decide what counts as “knowledge.” We are still living with this legacy. To the extent that other viewpoints are represented in the Western academy, they have been shoehorned into tokenistic electives and departments.

The sequestering of these other perspectives ensures that they do not challenge the prevailing paradigm. For all the praise that the proposed AP African American Studies course has received from the left, it, too, represents a silo. The same material, after all, could be more properly described simply as “American Studies”.

It does not have to be this way. We already have templates for ensuring that curricula are more historically accurate and inclusive of a wider range of global perspectives. In Germany, for example, teaching on the Holocaust is compulsory, meaning it is part of the collective psyche.

This is not about the pursuit of some political agenda; it is about facts. Psychology departments at leading universities now openly acknowledge that the behavioral patterns of people in WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic) countries are aberrations, rather than indicative of universal human norms. Similarly, history departments at top universities, particularly in the realm of economic history, increasingly recognise that the ravages of colonialism and slavery underwrote the triumphs of industrialisation.

We can understand the world better when we take plurality seriously. Philosophers call this “epistemic justice”, but others would just call it good science and honest research. The fight over what counts as a legitimate source of knowledge is not just about grandiose “castles in the air”. It is about the foundation of society and its capacity to achieve justice for all its members.

DeSantis’ effort to derail a potentially pathbreaking, long overdue academic initiative is meant to quell the most potent impetus to structural change: An intellectual paradigm shift. If anything, the AP African American Studies curriculum isn’t ambitious enough in its challenge to the prevailing narrative. By attempting to delegitimise it, the American right is pursuing a new kind of educational segregation: epistemic apartheid.


Antara Haldar is associate professor of Empirical Legal Studies at the University of Cambridge. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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