OP-ED: Dishonest assault on an educational gem
A photo of College Hall from Oct. 1979. Photo courtesy of the New College Digital Collections.

OP-ED: Dishonest assault on an educational gem

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Submitted by Bruce Benidt (‘72)

The Governor and the new trustees are wrong about New College. And it tears my heart and soul to see what they’re doing to such a bright light of learning.

New College does not indoctrinate. It is not a captive of liberal ideology. It is not too “woke,” however elusive and ridiculous that term is. 

I went to New College 50 years ago. What I learned there to do for myself—learn while leaning on wise teachers and mentors—has served me every day of a successful and varied career and an engaged citizenship.

I’ve stayed in touch with New College and I know it opens minds; it doesn’t fill them with one point of view. Through its history this brave little school has helped people learn how to learn. That means digging for information from many sources, critically analyzing that information, not taking anyone’s word without double-checking, considering points of view and backgrounds that might color someone’s conclusions. Guided by talented and accessible faculty, New College students discover what makes the world and its peoples tick. They are not told how to think. They figure it out on their own. 

Critical thinking has always been threatening to the powers that be. No wonder New College has been controversial from the start. But its quality, its daring, its reputation and the value it provides its students has always allowed it to survive. 

But today it faces its toughest opposition, from politicians who are not being honest about what’s happening at New College nor about their plans to change it. New College students are way smart enough to tell the difference between propaganda and actual intellectual inquiry. That’s why several told me, in the days after the Jan. 31 trustees meeting that eviscerated the school, and which I attended, that they still have hope. 

What’s at play here is a classic propaganda technique. Claim there’s a problem when there isn’t. Then say you can fix it. It’s like claiming there’s a problem of voter fraud when there really isn’t. But say it loud and often enough, scare people enough, and the lie becomes a “real” problem you can fix with—voter suppression. Claim indoctrination when it doesn’t exist, scare people about the subjects that you say are being pushed but really aren’t, and you can fire the alleged indoctrinator and sweep away the subjects you disagree with. 

The Governor’s administration and the majority of the legislature are in lockstep in calling a liberal education that looks at life from all angles dangerous. Bunk. They take the ludicrous position, for example, that learning about the massacre and burning of the Black town of Rosewood, Florida, 100 years ago will make students hate America. How simple they think people’s minds are, how condescending to say we’re too fragile to look at what’s wrong, hamstringing us from ever learning how to make it right. 

This cynical political pandering is bad enough on the campaign trail. But it’s enormously damaging when it constricts learning to delivering what straight white conservative Christian men view as the truth. The tragic irony is that what Hillsdale College—the new model for New College—teaches is a narrow view that can be seen as the indoctrination the Governor claims is happening at New College, but isn’t.

The Governor and his trustees are acting recklessly and with contempt for facts and law and for anyone who doesn’t think like they do. At their first board meeting the new trustees not only fired the president, but pushed actions that would endanger already approved federal funding, violate contracts and deny earned and approved raises to faculty. Several apparently hadn’t read the material provided to them in advance to help new trustees understand the school they were now in charge of. They didn’t care about facts, they didn’t want to learn—they are so certain they are right that they stomp in from afar and impose their will.  

And their inconsistency shows hypocrisy. When it came to approving an already negotiated raise for faculty, some of the new trustees said they wanted more time to deliberate and learn about the issue. But when it came time to fire President Okker, they didn’t need another second. They had planned out this beheading, in certain violation of Florida law, long before the public meeting.

Several new trustees gave as a rationale for sacking the President that conditions had changed since her hiring a year and a half ago. That’s circular, nonsensical reasoning. What has changed is them—their ideology now holds sway, so it’s their own change that precipitates their action. 

Calling the new trustees and the Governor names, of course, is useless. Letting my fellow Florida taxpayers know that these people are not being honest about New College is my only hope that this hijacking of a national educational gem can be stopped. 

This state has been proud of New College, calling it “The Honors College of Florida.” New College attracts talented students from around the country to Florida. Some stay in state or return after decades, as I have. New College sparks some of Florida’s best high-school grads to learn and grow and spur economic and intellectual activity in Florida. Its experimental approach to education has inspired other colleges to emulate the participatory learning inquiry of New College.

New College is a treasure. Seeing first-hand what the trustees did, talking afterward with students and staff, angered, depressed and inspired me. Students are knocked sideways, not knowing if their scholarships will still apply, if the school will lose its accreditation because of the board’s rash actions, if all the faculty will be fired, as one trustee wants. Should they transfer? Will their field of inquiry be killed off in favor of Bible classes? Will it be safe for LGBTQ+ students to remain? Parents are incensed that the school their kids applied to has been body-snatched away.

But commiserating with others by the bay, listening to a lovely pianist in the music room of the Ringling mansion that was the library when I was here, talking with students in front of Hamilton, I was surprised and inspired by their commitment to fight for their education against such intimidating odds. I look at the power arrayed against them—against us—and I think the students are naïve to believe they can prevail. Thank God. Just because it can’t be done doesn’t mean they won’t do it. 

What an astounding, window-shaking door-rattling education has leaped growling and spitting into your laps, New College students. Grab it, X Gonzalez. Grab it, Grace Keenan. All of you students inspire us all. 

Bruce Benidt graduated in 1972, studying history, literature and education. He’s been a daily newspaper reporter, a college journalism teacher, the chief learning officer of a global public relations firm and for 22 years an independent communications coach. His website is brucebenidt.com.

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