I used to read–or re-read–Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here every few years. Lewis is one of my guilty pleasures: he’s an astute observer, but can be a crank. His satire can be way over-blown. Like Dorothy Parker, he’s at his worst when he really likes and admires something or someone. But let him loose on hypocrisy or cruelty and he can have the pin-point accuracy of a targeted missile.
Then the 2016 elections happened and I couldn’t read the damned book at all. Haven’t been able to go back to it since. Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here after a trip to Europe in the mid-1930s, when fascism was getting its teeth into Germany and looking hungrily around the continent. He came back to the US urgently talking about the danger, and was told “It can’t happen here.” America was too folksy, too smart to fall for demagoguery. Wouldn’t happen. So Lewis did what writers do: he wrote a book where an apparently clownish politician plays on the worst impulses of the citizenry, wields division and prejudice, and gets himself elected President. Then things get really bad, all within the first 100 days of Berzelius Windrip’s election. Yes, concentration camps, ginned up wars with neighboring countries, the wholesale overtaking of not just state education but private colleges to bring them in line with the “corporate” mindset.
Okay, so we’re seven years past 2016, but even without a man in the White House, “It” just keeps rolling. Now it’s the “Honors College of Florida,” New College of Florida. NCF started as a private college in Sarasota, designed by a group of educators who “wanted to free both students and faculty from the limits of lock-step curriculum and a focus on credit hours and a GPA.” Since the early 1960s NCF has continued to be tiny, freethinking, and to turn out smart, passionate, politically astute students. In 1975 the college became part of the Florida State system, but managed to keep its unique structure and culture. It’s a school with high academic standards, that produces Fullbright Scholars and folks who go on to take on the world’s problems. It’s also the kind of school where a history student (and avowed white supremacist) was turned around by fellow students who talked to him challenging his ideas, made him use the critical thinking skills he was learning.
Disclaimer: My daughter is a NCF alumna, class of 2019.
Why am I invoking Sinclair Lewis and a tiny Florida college in the same breath? Because over the past few weeks the governor of Florida has put into place a plan to unmake New College–quirky, liberal, social-justice-y, and significantly queer–into a “classical liberal arts” college, part of DeSantis’s strategy to build himself as the “anti-Woke candidate.” He installed six new, right-leaning Board Members, and yesterday the president of the college was fired, replaced by Richard Corcoran (among other things, Marco Rubio’s former chief-of-staff). They voted to get rid of the Diversity Office, and what I hear from my daughter is that they are looking at terminating tenure for teaching staff. All part of turning a school that has been proudly and historically free-thinking and liberal into something else. It’s essentially a coup.
In other words, it can happen here. Is happening here. Even if the winds of change blow through Florida and DeSantis is shown the door, I’m not sure that the damage to an institution like New College can be undone. And I feel for the current students, who are horrified, but also frankly frightened of what this means for them (especially the LGBTQ+ students). They all came to a school that was quirky, liberal, social justice-y, and significantly queer–as well as academically excellent. That was what they wanted. If any of them had wanted to go to a “classical liberal arts college” (what that apparently means is a school where the European Dead White Male curriculum is king) there are plenty to which they could have applied.
I don’t know what to do. I have a hopeless feeling that it cannot be stopped. New College has always been tiny, and not for everyone, but the State says intervention is needed to grow its enrollment. Make it like other schools, conservative schools, and maybe the numbers will get better. But I don’t think this is about the numbers. I think this is an opening salvo in a very ugly war.