In May, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a series of higher-education bills, among them Senate Bill 266. As Florida’s system chancellor over public colleges, I helped design the provisions of that bill, which amended general-education requirements for students at all Florida colleges and universities. General education had become larded with “diversity” education; SB 266 stipulates that it should aim instead at universal knowledge and an understanding of our democracy. In short, the law clarified the legislative and executive expectation for what every undergraduate student attending our public colleges and universities should know, or at least be exposed to, in general-education coursework.
Naturally, the reform drew criticism from across the political spectrum. Journalists and academics argued that it would drive talent away from Florida and compromise the state’s competitiveness. Faculty claimed that the legislation infringes on academic freedom, viewpoint diversity, and shared governance. The American Association of University Professors has been particularly vocal about its displeasure with the direction of Florida’s higher-education aims. Still others speculated that the change would result in the loss of accreditation status for the Sunshine State’s universities, or in hostile environments for minority and low-income students.
None of this is true. Since the bill’s passage, Florida education leaders have in fact been flooded with inquiries from teachers wanting to move to the state. These interested instructors also believe that public colleges and universities should ground their general education coursework in the history of Western Civilization and the Great Books tradition—aims that SB 266 now makes explicit. This approach is not new, nor should it be controversial.
Public higher education in the United States was defined by its emphasis on helping students graduate with a common intellectual culture, equipped with the knowledge and skills to live successfully in a democratic society. The educational curriculum provided formal exposure to the Western Canon. To the extent that SB 266 will help expose students to a common set of principles that may equip them to be informed citizens, the law is on the right track.
As to the question of faculty rights, when has it ever been the case that faculty have an absolute, carte blanche power over what is taught within a general-education program at public colleges and universities? As an experienced faculty member myself, I have never assumed that my instructional priorities supersede the priorities of the university or its stewards. The state has a right to establish criteria or standards for public universities. Faculty and administrators, together with the state legislature and executive branch, all have a valid and justifiable interest in designing and regulating the general-education curriculum—and in ensuring that faculty members deliver it faithfully and objectively.
Moreover, public colleges and universities are in the business of character formation. The notion that faculty and college administrators have no obligations to citizens is a canard. Absent a common set of Western-oriented philosophical principles (even if students wind up rejecting them), what would we have? An aimless, formless undergraduate education—which, as it happens, seems to be the preference of many SB 266 critics.
As I have argued elsewhere, the impact of postmodernism on the collective ability to believe in objective truth should not be underestimated. So let us take seriously the consequences of a society without such measures as SB 266: that is, of a culture wholly devoid of a shared vision of the democratic ideal. Are we really comfortable with colleges and universities not working to instruct students in time-honored principles about what makes a flourishing society?