Does DeSantis understand the virtues of an American classical education? | Column
It is ironically naïve to think that the antidote to critical race theory is mandating a classical studies curriculum. Here’s why.
Thomas Paine, shown in a painting, famously wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls."
Thomas Paine, shown in a painting, famously wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls." [ Library of Congress ]
Published Aug. 14

They are popping up like mushrooms throughout Florida. The Hamilton Center at the University of Florida and the proposed Freedom Institute at New College. These new centers are the leading edge of Florida’s efforts to instill a Hillsdale College classical curriculum within higher education. A classical curriculum’s intent is to inculcate students in the Western tradition through history, literature, philosophy and the fine arts.

James Unnever
James Unnever [ Courtesy of James Unnever ]

Indeed, the interim president of New College, Richard Corcoran, justified its Freedom Institute by first citing Thomas Paine’s The Crisis. The Crisis was Paine’s rallying publication that inspired the troops fighting the American Revolution. Its opening sentence is infamous and quoted by Corcoran: “THESE are the times that try men’s souls.” Paine’s revolutionary writings are crucial to a classical education as they argued for overthrowing tyranny in the pursuit of freedom.

At the surface, it all sounds good. Students need to embrace the Western Tradition that advocates for individual freedom and the abolition of authoritarian governments. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ clarion call for a classical education is also his basis for making it illegal to teach critical race theory in the state of Florida. Opponents of critical race theory, including New College trustee Christopher Rufo, declare that it is unpatriotic, hostile, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist and anti-American. In short, DeSantis outlawed CRT because it argues that racism was and is foundational to the United States.

Ironically, exposing students to Paine’s The Crisis and other classical writings will only affirm that racism remains foundational to the United States.

CRT argues that one of the most debilitating forms of racism that “classical” white elites created and institutionalized was depicting African Americans as violent/criminal. Paine’s The Crisis is a perfect example as he repeatedly depicts African Americans as violent; “negroes invited to the slaughter” of the colonists, and “negroes to cut the throats of the freemen of America.” Relatedly, in his book Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson declared that African Americans “are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind” and “that in imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous.” Further, he concluded that after their emancipation, African Americans needed to be sent back to Africa otherwise there will be great “convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”

Current research shows that the “classical” elites were successful in institutionalizing racist stereotypes. Studies show that the prevailing racialized gendered stereotype of African Americans is that of the criminalblackman — the angry, young, male, urban, Black superpredator who has no remorse. Indeed, research shows that when people were asked to “close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?” more than 95% of the respondents identified the person as an African American. Additionally, studies indicate that the stereotype that associates African Americans with crime is bidirectional. Among whites, thinking about crime triggers images of African Americans and that thinking about African Americans triggers thoughts about crime. Furthermore, research indicates that African Americans youths are perceived as more adult like, culpable for their offenses and less amenable to treatment.

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Perhaps, the most powerful evidence that “classical” authors have systematically institutionalized this horrid depiction of African Americans as violent is found in Florida’s new standards for teaching African American history. These new standards mandate that every student learns as a benchmark the “acts of violence” perpetrated by African Americans. Thus, from 1776 to 2023 the systemic circle is unbroken. White elites from the very founding of the United States to today have perpetrated and institutionalized racial animus; they have created and promoted the systemic belief that African Americans are violent or criminal.

In sum, it is ironically naïve that Harvard-educated elite conservatives like DeSantis and Rufo (whose master’s degree is from the Harvard Extension School) believe that the antidote to critical race theory is mandating a classical studies curriculum. Unfortunately for them, if taught with virtue, students will learn that while these “classical” white elites advocated for freedom, they also promoted the hatred of African Americans. Thus, there are two related questions that we must now answer. First, how can we as a nation liberate ourselves from the hatred of African Americans that “classical” and contemporary elites have deeply ingrained in the American psychic? Second, can we do so when it is illegal in some venues to talk about systemic racism?

James Unnever is a research fellow at the University of Cincinnati Center for Communities & Justice. He recently retired as a professor of criminology from the University of South Florida.