The Long History of Conservative Indoctrination in Florida Schools

The Long History of Conservative Indoctrination in Florida Schools

The Long History of Conservative Indoctrination in Florida Schools

The top educational priorities in the Sunshine State were apparently reading, writing, and anti-communism.


When I was growing up, my Florida high school required me to endure a course called “Americanism vs. Communism.” I was hardly alone. Between 1962 and 1991, Florida mandated the class for all high school juniors or seniors in public schools. Each lesson had the same takeaway: “Americanism” was all good and “Communism” all bad.

Keep this history in mind when you hear Florida Governor Ron DeSantis talk about his opposition to the College Board’s Advanced Placement course in African American Studies because it is “woke indoctrination​​.”

“Americanism vs. Communism” was one of only two statewide requirements for graduation; the other was functional literacy. The top educational priorities in the Sunshine State were apparently reading, writing, and anti-communism. The course title has stuck with me all these years, especially as a college professor of history, because it forecast today’s sham debate about education in Florida.

The concept of “Americanism” dates to the colonial era. It’s meant to identify the nation’s distinctive historical origins and democratic political idioms. Individuals and groups across the political spectrum have marshaled it for varying purposes, including an inclusive vision of citizenship, but also racist anti-immigrant campaigns during the 1920s . Its capaciousness shrunk considerably during the Cold War as political conservatives used it to buttress exclusive ends. The rise of the Soviet Union and the fear of totalitarianism it provoked was an existential crisis that could only be neutered, they believed, with a contrast nationalist creed: Americanism.

Concerned that high school students were vulnerable to a Soviet plot to control the world, the state of Florida designed the course to ensure no teenager be tempted by communism. It defined Americanism as: “the recognition of the truth that the inherent and fundamental rights of man are derived from God and not from governments, societies, dictators, kings or majorities.” Americanism was a system that produced higher wages, a higher standard of living, and “greater personal freedoms and liberty than any other system of economics on earth.”

Florida depicted communism as an “ungodly” ideology promoted by an “enemy” with the “manpower, the resources, and the technological weapons for waging war” against “human freedom.” The state forbade teachers from suggesting that communism was preferable to Americanism and instructed them to warn students of the miseries of those who lived under its aegis.

Advocates extolled the course as an objective comparative study even though its biases were glaring. It was conceived as “the best method… to have the youth of the state and the nation thoroughly and completely informed as to the evils, dangers and fallacies of communism.” They described mandating the course as “similar to that of a scientist who examines the poison in order to offset its evil effect.”

An all-white, mostly male advisory committee consisting of educators, legislators, and private citizens representing the Florida Bar Committee, Florida Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the American Legion designed the course starting in fall 1961. They compiled a list of instructional materials that were unabashedly slanted. Reports from the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover’s, Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in American and How to Fight it (1958), were prominently featured. Hoover also famously provided consultation and endorsed the course.

Teachers often exercised some autonomy in their classrooms, recoiling from heavy-handed state intervention. Still, the bibliography continued to be sanctioned and the course retained its unique status as a requirement for graduation from 1962 to 1991.

A group of educators and lawmakers protested the course starting in the mid 1970s. Finally, in 1982, they got the state legislature to debate a bill to eliminate the course, but it failed by a lopsided vote. Leaders among Cuban American exiles from Fidel Castro’s Cuba formed a powerful constituency that lobbied to retain the course, prolonging the Red Scare in Florida. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union eventually persuaded supporters that the course had passed its prime.

The Red Scare was never just a concern about a Russian bogeyman poised for world domination. This rhetoric rationalized domestic repression of dissident voices that critiqued the prevailing vision of Americanism that rejected racial and economic equality.

The Florida legislature formed a committee in the 1950s like the one Senator Joseph McCarthy led in Congress to annihilate “un-American” activities it labeled as communist. The Johns Committee, as it was known, first attacked Black Americans for supporting civil rights and then moved on to target lesbian and gay faculty in the early 1960s at the University of Florida, University of South Florida, and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (a historically Black college), which led to firings and forced resignations. If DeSantis is confused about the relevance of Queer theory to African American studies, this is a case book example of the Lavender Scare and the Red Scare intersecting to destroy presumed enemies of the state.

DeSantis is openly flaunting the resuscitation of a decades-old playbook. His “stop woke” indoctrination of school children and his attacks on the free speech and academic freedom of teachers and college professors are sustained through a bevy of restrictive policies. The governor signed a law last year that requires teachers instruct students about the “Victims of Communism,” which echoes the objectives of the course that I had to take. He supported the state’s designation of a new civics and government curriculum falsely claiming that the founding fathers did not believe in a strict separation of church and state.

The Stop WOKE Act, also instituted last year, forbids academic instruction and workplace training that criticize racial inequality, taking special aim at caricatured versions of critical race theory and the 1619 Project. DeSantis has signed into law the banning of books in school libraries, potentially subjecting violators to prosecution for committing felonies. Teachers are draping their classroom bookshelves in cloth to avoid being accused of harboring materials they may not even know are on the ever-growing contraband list. DeSantis signed into law the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits discussions about sexuality and gender identity in classrooms of certain age groups and in ways that fall outside a “specified manner.”

The implications of these bills are grave. Under this regime, professors and teachers cannot instruct or do research, and students will not be able to learn about subjects that an authoritarian government does not like—even as it lies to its citizens by saying the regulations promote an “open exchange of ideas.” This looks a lot like the sinister tyranny perpetuated under communism that my high school class warned me to reject.

Florida has an illiberal history that DeSantis seems eager to replicate to appease a reactionary base and make himself the favored heir to the twice-impeached former President Donald Trump. We must be clear-eyed about what he is trying to achieve and the dangers everyone will face if he succeeds.

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