Current Affairs is


and depends entirely on YOUR support.

Can you help?

Subscribe from 16 cents a day ($5 per month)

Royalty reading issues of Current Affairs and frowning with distaste. "Proud to be a magazine that most royals dislike."

Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Fight Fiercely, New College!

If the governor of Florida wants a culture war, he should get one. Students and faculty must resist right-wing efforts to remake liberal arts education. The right can be defeated.

Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, is attempting to bring the culture war to my hometown of Sarasota, Florida, by stuffing the board of New College (a public liberal arts college) with conservatives committed to combating the influence of “wokeness” on campus. (The Wall Street Journal says that DeSantis’ representatives have defined “woke ideology” as “a belief that the U.S. suffers from systemic injustice,” which of course, they claim, it does not.) To be maximally provocative, DeSantis has appointed Christopher Rufo, the architect of the Critical Race Theory moral panic, to the board of trustees. Rufo has no clear qualifications for governing a university (not that we should have much respect for Qualifications), but he has been open about his strategy to wage war on CRT, and it’s clear that DeSantis appointed him with the mandate of shaking up New College.

The DeSantis-appointed conservatives on the New College board immediately set to work, firing the university’s president and replacing her with a DeSantis ally, Richard Corcoran. Corcoran, who served as a Republican member of the State House of Representatives before becoming DeSantis’ education commissioner, has made no secret of his hard-right politics, nor of his belief that the campus is a political battleground, having declared: “Education is our sword, that’s our weapon. …There’s going to be a battle. …The way we’re going to get to where we’re gonna get is by fighting every step of the way.”

New College has a reputation as a school for left-leaning hippie types. There have already been protests by students (who have launched the Save New College campaign) and parents about the changes. Rufo has made it clear that he’s not interested in the opinions of those who actually attend and teach at the university: the plan is to remake it whether the community likes it or not. 

The risk, then, is that while the students and faculty of New College will personally be opposed to DeSantis’ project in overwhelming numbers, there won’t be organized resistance, or what resistance does occur will fizzle over time, as progressive students graduate and the most progressive faculty leave under pressure.

The good news is that there is no reason DeSantis, Rufo, Corcoran, et al. need to win. True, they have legal powers. But the university community is comprised of its students, faculty, and staff. They are the university, so if they resist collectively, they can create the kind of university they want. If DeSantis cuts funding for queer studies, the community should organize study groups and bring in speakers. They should make the campus more woke than ever before. Defy them at every turn.

Rufo and DeSantis feel perfectly justified in refashioning the college into a right-wing brainwashing camp. From their perspective, the college is currently a left-wing brainwashing camp, and right-wing ideology is Truth Itself, so all they are trying to do is restore Truth to the university. They don’t see it as in any way illegitimate to cut gender studies and Black studies and introduce Founding Fathers Studies, because they see the former as a politically correct perversion of knowledge and the latter as essential for creating good citizens. So they’re not going to have any hesitation about radically altering the curriculum, if they can get away with it. “It’s not a takeover—it’s a renewal,” said one of the new DeSantis-appointed trustees. But of course it looks that way to him. It only looks like a takeover if you understand his politics to be insane. 

Students, faculty, and staff need to be prepared, then, to fight and fight hard. Rufo has been clear that his dream is to decimate teachers’ unions and to make sure that students are never exposed to the kind of Radical Leftist Notions that could open their minds and cause them to think the United States was systemically unjust toward women, queer people, and people of color. They’ve made it plain that their goal is for colleges to follow the classic Great Books style indoctrination program: Here is the Correct Knowledge, from Plato to Thomas Jefferson, and anything smacking of critical theory that radically interrogates the Correct Knowledge is Postmodern Truth Denial that must be expunged. The right’s ultimate goal is education as Christian nationalist training sessions: you will pledge your allegiance to the Flag, you will recite the Constitution, and you will certainly not ask uncomfortable questions like, “Why is all the wealth in the hands of a small group of people, and why is there such a large racial wealth gap?” (Unless your immediate answer is, “Because those without wealth were indolent and had improper family structures and did not yank sufficiently hard on their own bootstraps.”) 

The right has a very clear agenda, and it is terrifying and dystopian. Understanding what they’re trying to do is important, because often they’re good at politics in ways the left isn’t, and if we don’t grasp their strategies, we will be defeated by them. For instance, Pete Davis wrote a few years ago about a technique the right uses called “working the ref,” where they claim that neutral institutions are biased against them, and those neutral institutions (alarmed at the idea of appearing biased or unfair) respond by giving conservatives what they want. Davis explained: 

 “There is an idea in sports called ‘working the ref.’ You accuse the ref of being biased toward your opponent, and the ref starts being biased toward you to make up for it. It’s a clever tactic for bending an easily-rattled referee to your will. In institutional politics, the right-wing establishment has honed working the ref into an art form. It’s a two-part dance. First, they take institutions that see themselves as ‘neutral referees’ and accuse them of having a ‘left-wing bias.’  Then, they repeat themselves over and over and over again—no matter what the truth of the matter is—until the institution is so rattled by being called biased that it, in an attempt to affirm its neutrality, starts doing whatever the right-wing wants.”

  I thought of Davis’ analysis when seeing the news that after Ron DeSantis’ decision to block AP African American Studies from Florida high schools, the College Board (who plan the curriculum) rewrote the course to be friendlier to conservatives, including by “purg[ing] the names of many Black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory, the queer experience and Black feminism” and “usher[ing] out some politically fraught topics, like Black Lives Matter, from the formal curriculum.” The curriculum had been attacked by conservatives, including the National Review (who were particularly annoyed by the inclusion of work by Robin D.G. Kelley, a Current Affairs interview of whom can be found here). That’s not surprising: taking African American Studies is an eye-opening and radical experience. I was an African American Studies major in college myself, and realizing that Black intellectuals and activists have, for centuries, been making powerful critiques of the structure of American society that are kept out of the mainstream social studies curriculum gives you a better understanding of the full range of experiences that people have in the United States, making you more conscious of systemic injustices—and perhaps, more determined to help undo them. 

Students are natural activists, and I am sure those at New College will protest the new changes. The bigger worry is that faculty will not be sufficiently militant. Professors, despite the conservative caricature of them as a bunch of Marxist revolutionaries, tend to actually be a pretty docile bunch. They are left-leaning, but they tend not to be activists, as I’ve seen all too many times (at Harvard, for instance, few faculty supported the dining hall workers when they were campaigning for a livable wage). I am sure the New College faculty will widely disapprove of the effort to tell them what to teach, but the question is whether (and how much) they will actually resist. To invoke an extreme historical analogy, as the Nazis in Germany began reshaping the universities, there was little actual resistance by faculties, leading historians to wonder: “Why did they remain so silent with no visible (institutional) protest to the devastation within faculties and the violation of academic freedom, for example expressed in the book burning in May 1933?” One can argue that the professors were silent because they sympathized with Nazism (it is difficult to know), but I suspect that cowardice—the unwillingness to take personal risks for the sake of upholding a principle—was also very much at work. 

I have friends in Sarasota who say that what’s happening at New College makes them feel “hopeless.” I understand that; a right-wing takeover of a beloved local educational institution is depressing, just as it’s been depressing to watch conservatives take over local school boards across the state. But pessimism is a guarantee of failure. Seeing that conservatives are energetically pursuing their plans to remake the educational system should not just depress us, but increase our determination to resist, and to make universities genuine places of thoughtful inquiry that open students’ minds. So, from us at Current Affairs to the students, faculty, and staff of New College: good luck! Fight fiercely! Throw the bastards out! Make sure they fail. Don’t let them tell you what your school should be. If they want a fight for the future of education, give them one hell of a fight. 

Note: there is currently a GoFundMe to raise funds to help New College organizers fight back against the right-wing takeover. If you care about this, support them!

There will be more on culture warrior and alleged former torture supervisor Ron DeSantis in this magazine in the near future. Subscribe today to make sure you are the first to read our coverage. 

More In: Education

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


A wonderful spring issue touching on important issues such as child liberation, whether humans really love animals, why Puerto Rico's political status remains a problem, what Islamic finance can teach us, and how 'terrorism' has become a shape-shifting word. Welcome to the Manos-Fair, and enjoy Luxury British Pants, among other delightful amusements!

The Latest From Current Affairs