This afternoon, I had the honor and great pleasure of standing with a large gathering of students at the University of North Florida who’d gathered for a rally to demand that UNF President Moez Limayem reject Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ relentless assault on education. DeSantis has been on a mission to erase anything from public education, Grades K through college, he and his right wing ilk consider “woke,” which, by the way, is just one of many culture war words the collective consciousness of this country is being bludgeoned with daily. What is woke? Simply, it means that you/we/all of us have been awakened to the rights and legitimate concerns of others, regardless of race, color, creed, gender identity, sexual orientation or one’s chosen pronouns. Woke is a good thing. It gives everyone a seat at the table in this big tent of a country of ours, and it assures that everyone’s voice is heard, whether one agrees with it or not. But, as they’ve done with the totally fictional War On Christmas, the culture warriors have assembled yet another bogey man to further scare an already scared, gullible and angry base.
To hear Ron DeSantis and others like him tell it, woke means that the LGBTQ “agenda,” the Black “agenda,” the Hispanic “agenda,” the Native American “agenda” and the “agenda” of anyone who’s not a White, conservative evangelical Christian Nationalist, is being “shoved down the throats” of impressionable school children and college students and their parents. Almost every day, something nuttier and more offensive comes from the cesspool of wrongheaded thought that is the office of Ron DeSantis, be it erasing anything to do with diversity, inclusivity or culture from every kindergarten, elementary, middle and high school classroom and library in Florida, or on college campuses which are, ironically, conventional hatcheries of questioning and critical thinking.
Critical thinking skills? Questioning authority? Oh, but we can’t have that, can we? It’s gotten so bad that college professors are self censoring rather than risk drawing the ire of Florida’s own little Napoleon. Books are being banned and removed from libraries, and “media specialists” must now approve any books in a school library or in a teacher’s classroom library. Innocuous children’s books are even suspect. And now DeSantis has his hands on the necks of college professors, administrators and board members. Cross him and see what happens. He wants lists of the names of professors he considers to be indoctrinating students.
There have been other heads of state throughout history who collected names. One of them was a German fellow with a silly mustache, if I remember correctly. DeSantis, who hasn’t yet grown a silly mustache, says he’s going to replace the board of Sarasota Florida’s renowned New College with his own likeminded toadies and turn it into, his words, not mine, “the Hillsdale College of the South.” You know, the one in Michigan that’s essentially a Christian-centered think tank with a college curriculum. No college worth its liberal arts degree salt would ever aspire to become Hillsdale College. But that’s what DeSantis wants. It’s his fevered dream for education, which is really anti-education, in Florida. He’s even gone so far as to threaten tenure.
Thank God, Generation Z is having none of DeSantis’ theatre of the cruel. They’re standing up and pushing back. In numbers and with loud voices. They’re whip smart, social media savvy, sophisticated and wise beyond their years. The last thing they’re going to tolerate is a tyrant shoving a totalitarian ten commandments down their throats, instead of allowing them to get the education they’ve sought and paid for. When I was coming of age, it was the Vietnam War that rallied college students and other youth. When the voices of the youth could no longer be conveniently ignored, and when moms and dads watched the evening news every day and saw the bodies of their friends’ and neighbors’ kids being wheeled off transport planes in gray metal caskets at Dover Airforce Base, the war became untenable and ended. But the beginning of the end was the protests of college students and other youth. It is my belief that the beginning of the end of DeSantis-ism is beginning on school campuses.
After the war ended, campuses underwent a long period of activist dormancy. There are various reasons, but the biggest is that there wasn’t a threat to young folk as existential as the Vietnam War was to my generation of students. The social safety net seemed secure. Roe v Wade gave women a right to choose to have an abortion. Dispensing contraceptives was no longer a crime. Federal legislation began policing run amok state legislation that trampled on civil rights and the wellbeing of all. Things looked pretty good for a while. But while no one was tending the kitchen, saboteurs broke in and began a long, calculated process of poisoning the soup. And here we are today. It’s not just Ron DeSantis. It’s that whole lot of them took the Crazy Train to Insanityville and aren’t coming back. And now, just like that, students and colleges once again have a common enemy to stand against. Ron DeSantis, all puffed up with hubris, might well have unwittingly handed disaffected teachers, college students and professors the means of his own undoing.
The rally at UNF today was sponsored and organized by Students for a Democratic Society, also known as SDS. In the bad old days of my youth membership in, or association with, SDS got you either arrested and jailed or, at the very least, on an FBI watchlist of subversive organizations. But the SDS today, which arose in 2006 after the fall of the old SDS in 1974, isn’t instigating riots or setting fire to government buildings. They’re approaching their mission with peaceful means, knowing that the powers that be will try to metaphorically kick their teeth in. But they’re united. They’re determined. They organize. They do voter drives. They rally people to the polls and vote. They have big voices full of a youthful zeal that I find as refreshing as an icy glass of sweet lemonade on a blistering hot summer afternoon. And it did my old heart proud today to stand with UNF’s SDS Chapter President Lissie Morales and a large, vocal crowd of students to say enough. This is the line in the stand. We’re here and you’re not getting away with this. This cannot stand. This will not stand.
As one young speaker at today’s event said, “College students aren’t a bunch of zombies that don’t read and understand.” They don’t need “protecting” against free and unfettered exchanges of ideas and thought in the classroom. They don’t need DeSantis or Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz or any others in that clown car to save them from themselves. They’ve got this and we need to support them.
In an incisive editorial last week, UNF’s student news publication, the Spinnaker wrote: “Escalating each week, DeSantis’s “woke” offensive is the culmination of almost a year of bills, memos and political strong-arming designed to shape Florida’s educational curriculum into something that conforms to his whims and worldview. His strategy? Death by a thousand cuts.”
Today’s college students are taking a stand to try to prevent their colleges from bleeding out. They sure could use our help, not just our Facebook rants and blogs. We need to support them in concrete ways, too. Today, this old UNF alum took the first two steps. I went to their rally. I spoke at their rally. I will now join, as an alum, Students for a Democratic Society and stand with them. I’m not doing this for me. In the grand scheme of things, my time here, as is many of yours, is almost done. I’m doing this for my kids and grandkids. And for yours, too.
These are some dark days. There might even be darker ones ahead. But Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his “I See the Promised Land” speech on the day before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, had something to say about darkness that bears remembering: “I know, somehow, that only when it’s dark enough, can you see the stars.”
Please, stand with me. Stand with us. Help these kids find the starlight in this darkness.