Guest Column
I graduated from New College of Florida, and I have some thoughts | Column
We were not told what to think, only to think for ourselves. The beauty of it is that you get real creativity out of it, real original thought.
A view of the visitors center at New College of Florida, a building that overlooks Sarasota Bay.
A view of the visitors center at New College of Florida, a building that overlooks Sarasota Bay. [ New College of Florida ]
Published Jan. 19

I am a 2004 graduate of New College of Florida, and I oppose Gov. Ron DeSantis’ attempt to interfere in the curriculum there. Recent news reports have indicated that it is the governor’s intent to completely revamp the core curriculum and academic master plan at New College, abolish diversity, equity and inclusion policies, and essentially ban courses related to gender theory or race theory. The governor is working toward this goal by appointing six new hand-selected board members to New College’s governing board.

For those who are not aware, New College is a public university in the state of Florida that has small class sizes, a rigorous academic program and requires students to complete and defend a thesis before graduating. It is currently ranked as the #5 public liberal arts college in the country by U.S. News and World Reports and has been highly ranked for decades. It serves as Florida’s honors college and consistently generates students who are ready to succeed in competitive graduate schools, medical schools and law schools.

Eric D. Nowak
Eric D. Nowak [ Provided ]

I graduated from New College and became an attorney. My peers who graduated in my year did amazing things — they won Fulbright scholarships, became professors, doctors (with at least one neurosurgeon), attorneys, leaders of non-profits, urban planners, business owners, social workers and scientists (among other things).

Independent thought is paramount at New College. As students, we would read original source material rather than summaries in textbooks. We then had conversations about the meaning of those original source materials. We were free to think what we wanted about them and express it in class. In fact, part of a student’s evaluation addressed the ability to express independent thought on complex issues.

That is what makes New College great, that is what makes it successful. Students are given the freedom to stretch their intellectual curiosity. We were not told what to think, only to think for ourselves. The beauty of it is that you get real creativity out of it, real original thought. Not ideas that are the product of political polling, the 24-hour news cycle or Twitter feeds. Instead, students test their intellect and challenge each other. It’s this process that makes New College a consistent producer of successful graduates.

New College is as close to an Ivy League education you can get at a state school price. I wasn’t as motivated in high school as I should have been, so I didn’t get into Yale. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was the last person they let into New College in my year. But, once I got in, I thrived.

I wasn’t asked to memorize and regurgitate information. I was asked to create, to communicate and to innovate. In my time there, I had the opportunity to not only select from wonderful classes offered there, but also to create curriculum. For one annual independent study period (a month-long period every January where students get to study a topic of their choice) a group of us read eight great works of literature and wrote papers on all of them. We got to select the books and spent the entire month reading, talking about the books and writing papers for our professor sponsor.

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I studied abroad at Oxford in the summer between my junior and senior year and worked with a professor there studying international political science on topics of my choosing. I produced and directed a play for class credit. For my thesis my senior year, I did an analysis of historical U.S. political reforms that occurred in the 1990s and prepared an analysis of how and why they came about. I reviewed decades of newspaper articles and public polling and discussed in my thesis the interaction of the media, political actors/institutions and public opinion. I thereafter defended my thesis in front of three of my professors.

New College was an educational experience; it wasn’t just reading textbooks, taking tests and getting grades. The freedom given to students is something that should celebrated and promoted, not attacked for political points.

Apparently, the goal of the governor’s appointment of new board members is to turn New College into the Hillsdale College of the south. Hillsdale is a private, religious school, and students who go there cannot use federal or state aid to attend. New College is a public school with equal opportunity for all students and allows students to attend with federal financial aid and the Bright Futures scholarship (something that funded my own education).

New College provides Florida students the chance to get a first-class education at a price that they can afford. In state tuition at New College is, annually, $6,916; tuition at Hillsdale is $29,590 — regardless of residency. New College makes an Ivy League-like education affordable and attainable for Florida students. If the governor wishes to create a Hillsdale College in Florida, he should do so as a separate institution, instead of attempting to remake a shining beacon of academic excellence in our state which has been producing talented graduates since 1960.

The governor is poised to attempt to, in effect, censor the New College curriculum because he disagrees with some of the ideas (gender and race theory, among others) that are discussed in some classes there. This should scare every citizen of this state. Students who attend New College are adults, not elementary school children. They are there to educate themselves about a plethora of ideas, not to be taught a particular ideology. It seems that the governor thinks he can minimize dissent by censoring an exchange of ideas. This is un-American.

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear,”

— President Harry S. Truman in a Special Message to the Congress on the Internal Security of the United States on Aug. 8, 1950.

We shouldn’t be afraid of what students will do with ideas, but instead we should be excited to see where ideas take them.

New College does not need drastic changes to be successful, because it already is successful. Certainly, no institution is perfect. However, the imposition of broad-based curriculum changes based on political ideology alone is just plain wrong. New College thrives when its students thrive. If you try to place arbitrary limitations on curriculum you will destroy the thing that makes New College great — student independence. The likely result of such changes is that New College will fall in the rankings and fail to attract talented students.

I urge any new member appointed to New College’s board to stop and think about their own educational experience and what made them successful. I guarantee it wasn’t being told what to think or study, but instead being given the room to think for themselves. Let freedom of thought thrive and New College and its students will thrive.

“Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom. Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people — less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character.”

― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (I read this in a New College class).

This is not to say that New College students are geniuses. I am certainly not. But this should be the goal, this is who we want to attract, and this is what we want of New College graduates.

Let the four winds blow free.

Eric Nowak, New College Class of 2004, is a partner at McBreen & Nowak in Tampa, practicing plaintiff’s personal injury law. He received his law degree from the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law in 2009.