Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and Burr died broke and alone. Both men lost. Their dispute was both personal and political and lasted over two hundred years. Now It is playing not only on stages across the country, it also has entered K12 and postsecondary classrooms. The argument is over power–whether the few or the many should control the government. Alexander Hamilton was the Federalist party leader. He believed in political control by an elite, centralized government, and implied powers drawn from the constitution. His Federalist party viewed religion (usually Protestant belief) as a tool to build its sense of community. Burr was Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. They were anti federalists who supported state and local control and the separation of church and state. The Federalists collapsed as a political party by 1808, and new political alliances were formed on both sides. Nevertheless, the issues remained as we see today.
The debate over civics education in Florida is the latest political power play rooted in this old dispute. The strategy is subtle. Political conservatives are using money and political connections to alter Florida’s civics education. Behind the scenes is Hillsdale College, a religious college in Michigan that is defining what it means to be a patriotic citizen. The concept is akin to the idea of promoting ‘civil religion’ that evolved from the Federalist party’s celebration of patriotic ideas and events to build its base of support.
We need to not only understand these changes in civics education, but also the story behind Hillsdale College. The College was founded in 1844. Facing scandal and near collapse in 1999, the college selected its current president who saw an opportunity to promote its conservative Federalist ideology as a form of super patriotism and rebuild the school. It now has an endowment of over $800 million. It defines Federalism in its version of classical education called the 1776 Curriculum which is used in its classical charter schools. Read a critique here.
Supporters of the College include national and Florida-based politicians. Betsy DeVos, former U.S. Secretary of Education and Ginnie Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are examples. In Florida, they include Erika Donalds, wife of U.S. Representative Byron Donalds, who led the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, a conservative alternative school board association. She helped found the Florida Classical Academies (charter schools) sponsored by Hillsdale College. Florida politicians such as Governor DeSantis and Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran are identified with these charters. It is a close knit group with a history.
Erika Donalds sponsored Amendment 8 to the Florida Constitution in 2018. The amendment was thrown out by the courts, but its agenda to limit school boards’ authority, ban books, and require its version of civic literacy remain. Governor DeSantis has coopted it as he builds his candidacy for President. His legislative agenda prohibits teaching subjects that make students uncomfortable about past events (HB 7). HB 1467 bans controversial topics in textbooks. The new civics curriculum with its particular set of values will take effect in 2024.
It is difficult to believe that a small college in Michigan could impact Florida’s students at both the K12 and postsecondary levels, but they have. The Florida legislature has passed Governor DeSantis’ measures to revise the State Standards for Civics (HB 5), K12 Social Studies (SB 1108), and postsecondary requirements regarding diversity of opinions (HB 233). Teacher training workshops have been held to make the curriculum “more patriotic”. These changes were reviewed and modified by Michigan’s Hillsdale College. A new University of Florida Hamilton Institute was funded by Florida’s legislature and Hillsdale College to develop civics courses at the college level. Normally, the faculty at universities control the curriculum, and how these courses will be implemented is unclear. This week DeSantis has announced the creation of three community college civics career academies to train students to work in local government.
Florida politicians, like the president of Hillsdale College are opportunists. They thrive in times of turmoil. As in 1808, our political parties are again in disarray leaving room for new parties and power brokers to emerge. Will political parties reorganize to rebalance the power of money and influence? Hamilton took his shot at power and lost. The anti-federalist Jeffersonians held sway until their internal divisions split the party. New coalitions formed then and will again when voters insist. Our democracy depends upon it.