DeSantis as Gradgrind

Florida’s Governor DeSantis educational scheme that students need to learn the facts and nothing but the facts is likely to make teaching and learning in Florida more challenging than ever before. DeSantis’ “fact only” pedagogy mirrors that of Thomas Gradgrind, a character in Dickens’ Hard Times who sustained the Victorian status quo by teaching students how not to think. Echoing Gradgrinds’ “Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts,” DeSantis is prohibiting questions of interpretation, analysis and meaning in Florida’s classrooms. DeSantis’ Gradgrind mentality views facts as simple straight-forward bits of information, self-evident, stand-alone pieces of reality. They don’t need interpretation or analysis. All teachers need to do is present the facts so students can learn by rote. Job done. 
DeSantis’ pedagogy overlooks the simple fact that our world is made of an infinite number of facts. Which of these should teachers teach? How can they decide? How should they evaluate the importance of different facts? Honest fact-loving teachers might go nuts trying to figure out which facts to present to students – unless, of course, they first thought hard and deep about what makes some facts worth knowing and why. But doing that requires interpretation, analysis and meaning, exactly what DeSantis wants to avoid.
Our decades of experience teaching one of the basic courses of American higher education – Introduction to American Government and Politics – provides a concrete example of the pitfalls of DeSantis’ approach. These introductory courses regularly require students to read James Madison’s brief but brilliant Federalist Paper #10, ranked by many scholars as the apex of American political thought. Now, that’s a fact. But what facts do we present when teaching a basic course on American government. Obviously, it’s important for students to learn that America’s institutional structures of federalism and the separation of powers allow for an ordered form of liberty. Madison offered these ideas as well-informed probabilities, not as “facts.” But he thought the plan would probably work because it harmonized with the raw selfishness and ambition of his view of human nature.

Nothing for Ron DeSantis to worry about with this approach. But do students need to know the additional fact that Madison, speaking on the floor of the constitutional convention, offered a different perspective, one based on the “fact of experience” and real political history. There he observed that in the real, factual world of class inequality as little as one third of a population equipped with economic and military power could “conquer the remaining two-thirds.” Then, if that ruling class excluded from the political process “those whose poverty disqualifies them from a suffrage,” e.g., the right to vote, the numerical minority of the rich and powerful could turn themselves into the “majority” without any counter-vailing power to resist it. So much for checks and balances. Finally, as if to add insult to injury, Madison states the most devastating “fact” of all – “where slavery exists, the Republican Theory becomes still more fallacious,” in other words, false. Madison acknowledged that the Republic he and his colleagues were constructing was, in fact, not a true Republic but a slave-based system of rule by the rich. Teaching these facts is disturbing to right-wing protectors of the status quo. After all, it could lead to criticism of the institutional structures of our government and fire up a movement for a more authentic democracy. DeSantis’ solution to this possibility: Out, out damn fact.

Given this clash of facts, what is a fact-respecting 21st century Gradgrind to do? It appears DeSantis wants teachers to oversimplify reality and withhold from their students the “fact” of Madison’s complicated equivocal view. But do parents really want a dumbed down education for their kids? Or might our would-be Professor-in-Chief dare accept “the fact” of complicated and complex “facts” and actually allow teachers the freedom to explore with their students the maze of troublesome issues faced by a narrow stratum of constitution makers who wanted it both ways: to establish a slave-based oligarchy in fact, and a Republic in name only. The teachers and students of Florida and beyond are waiting for an answer, Governor, what say you?

Sidney Plotkin is a Professor of Political Science, Margaret Stiles Halleck Chair of Social Science, at Vassar College. He is the author of many articles and several books, including Veblen's America: The Conspicuous Case of Donald J. Trump (Anthem Press, 2018). William E. Scheuerman is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at SUNY Oswego. He is the retired President of the National Labor College and past President of United University Professions, the nation's largest higher ed union. A long-time labor activist, Scheuerman has written several books and numerous articles in both scholarly and popular journals. His most recent book is A New American Labor Movement: The Decline of Collective Bargaining and the Rise of Direct Action (SUNY Press, 2021). Read other articles by Bill Scheuerman and Sid Plotkin.