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Florida Officials Cut Sociology as Core College Class in War on Critical Thought

Sociology educators say the discipline is a right-wing target because it challenges students to question the status quo.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets attendees after speaking at a campaign stop at Pub 52 on January 15, 2024, in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa.

When Afshan Jafar arrived at Ohio Wesleyan University as an undergraduate in 1995, she enthusiastically enrolled in a variety of classes, including classics, dance, economics, philosophy and sociology. As an international student from Pakistan, she found the array fascinating, but it was an 8:30 am class called “Intro to Sociology” that most intrigued her.

“The class helped ease my transition from one culture to another and helped me understand our differences. It helped me put my individual experience into a broader context,” she told Truthout. “Sociology goes from the micro to the macro and gives us a way to look at social problems or social situations from multiple vantage points. I think this is why the field is so threatening to the right wing. Sociology provides a way to assess structural problems, allowing us to see beyond individual failures or individual difficulties.”

Fast forward several decades and Jafar is now the chair of the Sociology Department at Connecticut College and served as the co-chair of a seven member committee of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) that evaluated the impact of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s attack on public higher education in the Sunshine State.

Their findings were released in December 2023 and concluded that “academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance in Florida’s public colleges and universities currently face a political and ideological assault unparalleled in U.S. history which, if sustained, threatens the very survival of meaningful higher education.”

That assault, of course, began in 2019, when DeSantis became governor, but until recently, had primarily focused on K-12 programs. In addition to narrowing what can be taught and curtailing what public school teachers can discuss in their classes, the administration’s sweeping education agenda has included wide-scale book bans; bills prohibiting gender-affirming medical care for minors; legislation barring use of a student’s preferred name and pronouns by teachers and school staff; bathroom bills that limit who can use male and female facilities; and a pilot program, the Florida Civic Seal of Excellence, a $45 million initiative that provides K-12 instructors with a $3,000 stipend for completing a 55-hour online class developed by the Christian conservative Hillsdale College and the right-wing Heritage Foundation. The goal of the class is to enable elementary and high school teachers “to sow the seeds of liberty” in their students — a “pro-patriotism” objective that has never been concretely defined.

To date, more than 11,000 Florida teachers have taken the course.

But in addition to its fixation on K-12 schooling, the DeSantis administration has now taken a shot at restricting what is offered at the state’s 40 public two- and four-year colleges and universities. The first step was announced by Florida Commissioner of Higher Education Manny Diaz Jr., a DeSantis ally, who reported that Principles of Sociology was being removed from the five core classes needed for degree completion at the state’s public colleges.

“Sociology provides a way to assess structural problems, allowing us to see beyond individual failures or individual difficulties.”

Although the course will still be offered as an elective, Diaz made clear that all core classes must comply with a 2023 state law which disallows content that teaches that “systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States” or that insinuate that these factors play a role in ongoing economic, political or social inequities in our society.

Where “Woke” Goes to Die

Diaz justified the course removal — announced in January 2024, one month after the AAUP report was issued, and coinciding with a prohibition on the use of state or federal monies to support diversity, equity and inclusion programs on campuses throughout the state — as part of Florida’s “anti-woke” effort.

“Sociology has been hijacked by left-wing activists and no longer serves its intended purpose as a general knowledge course for students,” he told the press and posted on X. “Florida’s higher education system will focus on preparing students for high-demand, high-wage jobs, not woke ideology.”

The Principles of Sociology course will be replaced by an 18th- and 19th-century U.S. history class that focuses on a close reading of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.

“The attacks we are seeing in Florida and elsewhere are attacks on knowledge,” Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million member American Federation of Teachers, told Truthout. “They are an attack on critical thinking and the embracing of the other. The attacks are intended to create fear and divisions which benefit the autocrats. They fear a country that is diverse and that is powerful because of that diversity. That’s the through line.”

“Sociology is an easy scapegoat,” Peter Dreier, E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College, agrees. “Sociology challenges the idea that there is something called human nature, that inequality is a natural phenomenon. Sociology compares the U.S. to other countries and opens our minds to the idea that things like poverty do not need to exist.”

What’s more, Dreier told Truthout, sociology routinely poses questions that force students to separate fact from fiction and assess who is impacted by particular policies. It then asks why people should care. “This is also true of history and political science,” he said, “but sociology challenges ideas that students were brought up to take for granted, things that they think they know. Right-wingers benefit when people do not do this. They benefit when students do not think critically about their assumptions.”

Zachary Levenson, an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University, calls Principles of Sociology an apolitical class, but sees the targeting of the discipline as building on austerity measures that are closing U.S. colleges and shrinking course offerings at dozens of public and private colleges and universities across the country.

“First they pushed austerity and then the culture wars popped up,” he told Truthout. “Advocates of austerity have now aligned with those who want to change the university from an institution that values the production of knowledge to one that ensures that graduates are prepared for well-remunerated jobs. People like Diaz and DeSantis see programs and content that go beyond preparation for the world of work as unnecessary.”

So what exactly is “necessary” and who decides? For Levenson, it comes down to power: Who has it, what they do with it and why they’ve used it in the ways that they have.

Christopher Mele, professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo-State University of New York, stresses the importance of understanding power and helps his students study the varied political dimensions of how power is exerted by the U.S. government, both domestically and internationally.

“I want students to be exposed to different theories about how society is organized and how it functions,” he told Truthout. “One of sociology’s values is that it encourages individuals to step back and look at how different communities and populations operate. Debates and discussions touch on politics, economics, and racial, class, gender, ethnic and religious differences, but when right-wing legislators hear these words they freak out. They see talking about these things as divisive and in some cases as indoctrination. It’s complete nonsense. Introductory sociology classes give students 14 weeks to think about things in their everyday lives that seem obvious but aren’t.”

For Matthew Marr, a sociology professor at Florida International University, sociology is about exploring the relationship between people and social institutions. This, he said, includes the different ways that inequality and injustice impact people, something that is important for students to understand whether they major in the humanities, business or the sciences. “Sociology helps students understand cultural differences, that different ethnic groups might have different stressors in their lives, or have different ideas about something like promoting mental health. It helps them understand the impact of context,” Marr said.

So how best to assert sociology’s value and push back against its removal as a core class?

Resistance to Attacks on Education Builds

To date, public education advocates, teachers’ unions and activists say that their energies have been largely directed toward opposing book bans and anti-trans legislation. But, they say, resistance is building — and now includes growing support for higher education.

“The attacks usually start in Florida and the pattern has been that the attacks then spread to other states,” Todd Wolfson, interim chair of Higher Education Labor United, told Truthout.

Wolfson knows that the challenges ahead will require strategic thinking and on-the-ground organizing. “We need to reimagine and revalorize public higher education to counter the fascists and neo-fascists who are threatening it,” he said. “We know that public education supports social mobility and social progress. It helps build democracy. We need to make sure that people understand that this is why the right has worked tirelessly to control curricula, restrict the hiring of teachers, ban books and control what happens in schools from kindergarten through college.”

“Sociology challenges the idea that there is something called human nature, that inequality is a natural phenomenon.”

Boosting faculty governance and academic freedom are central to these efforts.

“Academic freedom is being threatened all over the country,” Afshan Jafar said. “Even in faculty groups, there are often gaps in understanding what these terms mean and what rights they give us. We have to change this. We also have to get people who live outside of Florida and who work outside of the academy to pay attention to what’s happening.”

Potential allies, she believes, are everywhere.

Carlos Guillermo Smith, senior policy adviser at Equality Florida, a statewide advocacy group working to protect and defend the state’s queer and trans communities, told Truthout that while it took time to roll out, resistance is surging across the state. “People are opposing book bans and the trampling of parental rights for those whose kids are trans or nonbinary. They’re talking about and opposing government control over our private lives, and the disservice that comes from abolishing diversity, equity and inclusion programs. The baseless accusation of indoctrination by sociology professors — when it is Republicans in Florida who are indoctrinating students into ignorance — is too much,” Smith said. “The tide is turning. The mood is shifting and public pressure against these measures is going to diminish the clout of Governor DeSantis. The collapse of his presidential campaign was just the first step.”

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