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Maxwell: Welcome to Florida, the benighted state

By Bill Maxwell

One of Florida’s three nicknames is the Sunshine State. We should add at least one more: the Benighted State.

You see, our anti-intellectual lawmakers in Tallahassee recently passed a law that institutionalizes academic censorship in our public schools. These politicians are urged on by the ultra-conservative group the Florida Citizens Alliance, anti-science zealots.

Here is the bill’s language: Each district school board must adopt a policy regarding an objection by a parent or a resident of the county to the use of a specific instructional material, which clearly describes a process to handle all objections and provides for resolution.

The "instructional material" includes movies, textbooks and novels. The legislation also includes general guidelines establishing grounds for censorship: The material is pornographic; it is not suited to the student needs and ability to comprehend the material; it is inappropriate for the grade level and age group.

A so-called "unbiased hearing officer," hired by the board, will handle complaints and advise the board on what action to take against material.

The Florida Citizens Alliance’s managing director, Keith Flaugh, argued in a statement that our schools are using pornographic materials and textbooks that "totally distort our founding values and principles. They are teaching our kids socialism versus free markets. They are teaching our kids that the government is our nanny, the government is supposed to protect them."

Fortunately, educators such as Brandon Haught, spokesman for Florida Citizens for Science, know that the legislation is a cynical ploy by ideologues to suppress information about evolution and climate change.

"The alliance is pushing their narrow ideology on the public schools in any way they can and so far they’re meeting with success," Haught said. "I can’t speak for the other academic subjects they’re targeting, but I know beyond a doubt that their ideology when it comes to science is grossly ignorant and doesn’t belong anywhere near a classroom."

Right-wing lawmakers pretend the new law will protect children from liberal ideas and practices. These people are hypocrites. The censorship law should be universal. It should apply to all public schools, including charter and voucher schools that operate on public tax dollars. This is not the case. Voucher and charter schools are exempted from the institutionalized censorship.

If the legislation is about accountability, as lawmakers claim, then charter and voucher schools also should be held accountable.

The ugly truth is that Republicans are turning our traditional public schools into centers of cultural conflict, where popular ignorance is valued over wisdom, inconvenient truths and exploration.

A high school student in Dixie County is having none of it. Here is how the student responded to a district email listing novels to be banned: "As a high school student it angered me when they read the email to us. What HIGH SCHOOL student doesn’t know about ‘profanity, curiosity or inappropriate subject matter’? Please name one. I would understand if this was elementary students but high school come on. We are gonna learn about it one way or another!"

A child proves to be wiser than conservative adults.

The other night, I watched the 1957 film Peyton Place again because I recalled the scene in which Michael Rossi, the new high school principal, explains his philosophy of education to Elsie Thornton, a veteran teacher. Remember, Peyton Place was released during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency.

"The things we can’t see are the most important on this Earth," Rossi said. "They’re called ideas. I have two rules: First, I want this school to teach the truth, as far as we know it. I don’t want any teacher making a fairy tale out of life. It’s hard enough as it is without being equipped to meet it. And rule two: Teach a minimum of facts and a maximum of ideas. Our job is to teach children how to think, not just to memorize for a couple of weeks."

I always remembered Rossi’s rules and applied them throughout my career as a teacher. Fortunately, I had supervisors who believed that exposing students to challenging ideas and material is sound pedagogy, helping young minds mature emotionally and intellectually.

I have two grandsons in first grade, so I have a bona fide stake in what happens in Florida’s public schools. As such, I do not want benighted Republicans determining the instructional materials my boys are exposed to in their classrooms. I trust their teachers.