Making Florida Great Again
On June 22, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law three bills to strengthen civics education in the Sunshine State. As De Santis said at the signing ceremony, “The sad reality is that only two in five Americans can correctly name the three branches of government, and more than a third of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.” And so, he concluded, “It is abundantly clear that we need to do a much better job of educating our students in civics to prepare them for the rest of their lives.”
Yes, in recent decades we’ve learned the hard way what happens to a country that forgets the basics of its own greatness. If American history is forgotten along with the lessons of civics and the Constitution, then it’s no surprise that young people, schooled instead in pop culture and nihilism, will fall prey to Antifa-ish ideologies.
So we most definitely need a plan for teaching people more than just the fakeries of the Marvel Comics Universe and Black Lives Matter. Americans need to know, for example, that the U.S. Constitution is not just some musty old document written by “white supremacists,” but rather, a practical and enduring guide to small “r” republican self-governance.
Of DeSantis’ three bills aimed at fixing this civics-gap problem, the first concerns the teaching of civics in grades K-12; the second concerns teaching civics in state colleges and universities; and the third—the most controversial—requires those state schools to “conduct annual assessments of viewpoint diversity and intellectual freedom.”
We might pause to admire the thoroughness of DeSantis’ approach. As we have learned, it’s not good enough for Republicans to simply write a law saying that some good thing, such as civics education, is supposed to happen. Why not? Because if the bureaucrats think they think they can get away with it, they will find ways of maneuvering around—or simply ignoring—any such law. So what’s needed is constant monitoring of law-abdingness or as the bill has it, “annual assessments.” As they say, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
Furthermore, we can also admire the way that DeSantis has captured and inverted the notion of “diversity.” As we know, to the left, diversity is defined as merely skin color or gender, and yet DeSantis is saying that we should most prize diversity of thought.
And so now all of a sudden the usual-suspect champions of lefty-diversity are outraged. For instance, the Miami Herald published an angry editorial accusing DeSantis of “targeting academia” (certainly true) and of being “anti-democratic” (certainly not true).
Yet interestingly, even the Herald conceded, “There’s no denying that many universities have traditionally been hotbeds of liberalism.” And the newspaper further conceded, “It’s also likely that in any environment where one point of view is predominant those who think differently might feel shunned, as conservatives say they are on college campuses.”
In other words, even seen through the liberal eyes of this establishment media outlet, there’s a logic to what DeSantis is doing. These are after all state-supported schools. So yes, the interests of the people of Florida—who elected not only DeSantis, but also the Republican state legislature—should be fairly represented. To put that another way, the taxpayers who foot the bill for public schools ought not to be insulted by the schooling.
Meanwhile, other establishment media organs were less measured in their response to DeSantis, accusing him of being an enemy of “free thought.” And the hard left went even further, calling Florida’s 46th governor “a stupid wanking fascist.”
Most assuredly, DeSantis has been on a roll, having made the right calls on Covid-19, on the “mostly peaceful protests” (also known as riots), on girl-stomping transgender athletics, and on critical race theory. And oh yes, he not only survived a hit-piece from CBS News’ 60 Minutes, but actually emerged as the winner.
Yet of everything that DeSantis has accomplished in his less than three years in Tallahassee, it’s hard to think of a greater accomplishment than his reform of civics education — because such reform goes right to the heart of who we are and who we should be as Americans.
Remembering Where Our Greatness Comes From
In his wonderful 2002 book, Making Patriots, the late Walter Berns, a longtime scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, explained that the exceptional nature of U.S. history imposes a double duty on good citizens. We must understand that we are a people sharing a common language and a common culture, and we must also understand that we are blessed by a great guiding idea in the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Hence, Berns wrote, “the unique character of American patriotism: the devotion not only to country but also to its principles.” These principles have often been called simply Americanism.
Indeed, all through American history, our best leaders and thinkers have emphasized the importance of civic instruction to advance Americanism. Yes, of course, we should be free and enjoy freedom of conscience, and yet at the same time, we have to live together in harmony, and such arrangements require statecraft as well as soulcraft. As our second president, John Adams, wrote in 1808, “Our Obligations to our Country never cease but with our lives.”
And so wise leaders saw the value in education to remind each generation of its obligations as well as its rights. Such thinking led our fourth president, James Madison, to write in 1822 in praise of public education in the new state of Kentucky:
The liberal appropriations made by the Legislature of Kentucky for a general system of Education cannot be too much applauded. A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
Yet it was during wartime that we were most reminded of the importance of a common civic culture. Speaking to the 166th regiment of Ohio during the Civil War, our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln, reminded the troops why they were fighting: “It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright. . . . The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”
To be sure, the proper goal is not blind loyalty—at least not to any politician or party. As Mark Twain wrote in 1889, “My kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its officeholders.” That is, the nation is held to be permanent, while the bureaucracies and politicians might come and go. As Twain continued:
The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death.
So yes, we should be ready to change politicians and even governing structures as needed, and yet as President Andrew Jackson said in 1830: “Our Federal Union! It must be preserved!”
And so from time to time, the mechanism of preservation need to be upgraded and modernized. For instance, in 1892, at a time of unprecedented immigration to the U.S., Francis Bellamy, recognizing the need for a new catechism of national unity, composed the Pledge of Allegiance.
In fact, in those days, public officials were at pains to make sure that the nation’s symbols were respected and revered. And that’s why in 1907, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Nebraska ban on the use of the American flag in commercial advertising. In the words of the high court, “A State may exert its power to strengthen the bonds of the Union and therefore, to that end, may encourage patriotism and love of country among its people.”
As we all have seen, the prohibitions on the commercial use of Old Glory have eroded over the decades. And yet it was still startling, as well as disappointing, to see that in 1989, the Supreme Court reversed its ruling in defense of the flag, crazily declaring that actual flag-burning was allowable “free speech.”
Yet notwithstanding the mutantly liberal Supreme Court of the late 20th century, most Americans have clung to patriotism and associated sentiments of duty and honor.
One is reminded of a scene toward the end of the 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan—the film which most accurately depicts what the Greatest Generation actually went through in World War Two combat—in which the Captain Miller character, dying from his wounds, can manage only a gurgled whisper as he tells Private Ryan, “James, earn this . . . earn it.” That is, the younger man is injuncted by Miller’s blood sacrifice to go home and live a full life as a good citizen of the United States.
We might also call that late in his presidency, Donald Trump made his own effort to advance civics. In September 2020, he declared, “Our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their souls.” And so he directed the formation of a “national commission to support patriotic education,” to be called the 1776 Commission.
To be an American means something noble and good. It means treasuring freedom and embracing the vitality of self-government. We are shaped by the beauty, bounty and wildness of our continent. We are united by the glory of our history. And we are distinguished by the American virtues of openness, honesty, optimism, determination, generosity, confidence, kindness, hard work, courage and hope. Our principles did not create these virtues, but they laid the groundwork for them to grow and spread and forge America into the most just and glorious country in all of history.
It was revealing that within a week of taking office, President Joe Biden felt the need to abolish the 1776 Commission. Announcing his new push for “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” he dismissed the commission’s work as “ignorance and lies.”
In other words, whether he knew it or not, Biden was putting himself squarely against centuries of accumulated wisdom about the importance of positive civic education. In fact, the Biden administration has spent its first six months aligning itself with the anti-civics of critical race theory (CRT).
Indeed, Biden is fully in league with the education establishment—and we know that means. It means that our civic future is being hijacked by CRT zealots in the professoriate, reaping exorbitant salaries to teach young people, in the mordant words of Donald Trump, Jr., to hate their country.
Fortunately, we are now in the midst of a substantial public backlash against CRT. We won’t know the effectiveness of anti-CRT activism until we see some election results—including in Virginia, where Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin is helping to rally aggrieved parents in CRT-afflicted Loudon County.
Yet as of now, Ron DeSantis is the tip of the spear. As governor of a state which is just 53 percent non-Hispanic white, he made the bet that color-blind Americanism—including law and order and good civics—would be a winner. And he’s been proven right; recent polls show him leading his possible Democratic opponents by double digits.
Yes, DeSantis has the benefit of a Republican legislature, and yet so do most states. The better explanation for DeSantis’ success is that he has been more alert to governmental necessity (and, of course, political opportunity as well).
And yet there’s still time for other Republicans to try and catch up as they eye 2022 and 2024.