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EXCLUSIVE: Now the far right is coming for college too — with taxpayer-funded "classical education"


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Salon

Republicans are channeling tax dollars to right-wing institutes at colleges across the nation. What's the endgame?

Kathryn Joyce

May 31, 2022

Last fall, when professors at Flagler College, a private liberal arts school in St. Augustine, Florida, gathered for a faculty senate meeting, they learned that the college administration had worked with their local legislator to propose a new academic center on campus, the Flagler College Institute for Classical Education. To administrators, it was an exciting prospect: the chance to receive $5 million from the state to shore up their "first year seminar," a universal core curriculum for incoming freshmen intended to help students, particularly first-generation students, prepare for the rigors of college. 

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It didn't help that one Flagler trustee perceived as being a key driver of the proposal, John Rood, a former ambassador under George W. Bush, also chairs the governing board of the Jacksonville Classical Academy — part of the nationwide charter school network created by Hillsdale College, a private Christian college in Michigan that has become a major player in America's culture wars. To some faculty, the proposed institute felt like an attempt to "make Flagler College the Hillsdale of the South." 

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According to the legislation, the center would be tasked, along with two other schools — the Florida Institute of Politics at Florida State University in Tallahassee and the Adam Smith Center for the Study of Economic Freedom at Florida International University in Miami — with helping create materials for the state's recently overhauled K-12 civics curriculum, whose stated aim is now to create patriotic, "upright and desirable" citizens. 

Specifically, these centers will help develop a series of "oral history resources" called Portraits in Patriotism that will include, for example, videos of Florida immigrants who fled countries like Cuba and Venezuela, to impress upon students "the evil of communism and totalitarianism." When DeSantis discussed the project with Fox News' Laura Ingraham in 2021, he suggested that this project would also serve as Florida's response to "critical race theory." It also seems these centers may become training grounds for Florida's K-12 instructors; DeSantis has previously offered $3,000 grants to teachers who undergo training in the new civics standards. 

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Are you teaching history "the right way"?

At Flagler College in St. Augustine, it's still not clear where the proposed Institute for Classical Education fits into this complex picture. Much of the faculty uncertainty or apprehension isn't about what Flagler administrators have actually proposed but rather the context surrounding it: the coded meanings of "classical ed," the updated model of state-funded university infiltration and the overall atmosphere of hostility to public education in Florida and around the country. 

Earlier this year, Flagler historian Michael Butler was supposed to deliver a training seminar on the civil rights movement to Florida elementary school teachers. It was canceled by local officials who feared it might fall afoul of new prohibitions on teaching about race. When he tells people he's a historian these days, he said, they increasingly respond by asking him whether he teaches history "the right way." 

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Read more on the American right's latest wave of assaults on education:

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