A very old academic joke:
Smith: What’s your biggest communication challenge?
Jones: Sometimes I pay too much attention to the semantics of a statement and not enough to the pragmatics.
Smith: Could you give an example?
The statement from presidents of Florida’s community colleges on CRT reminded me of that. Its semantics are careful, but its pragmatics aren’t.
I’m going to be deliberate here. I know personally some of the community college presidents in Florida whose institutions are signatories. I know them as smart, serious and thoughtful people. They would not sign on lightly or without a sense of what’s at stake.
The wording of the statement is precise and careful. It affirms that the colleges will not support any program that “compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality.” Shortly after that, it clarifies, “Our institutions will only teach critical race theory as one of several theories and in an objective manner.”
Did you catch that? They will not “compel” belief in CRT or, presumably, anything else; instead, when relevant, they’ll teach it “objectively” and in context of other approaches. Critical race theory, intersectionality and whatever else can live on; they’re promising only not to “compel” belief or present the theory as the one true faith.
On that very precise wording, it’s hard to object. I’ve taken my share of classes in political theory, sociological theory and even literary theory, and I’ve even taught a few. I have no idea what it would mean to “compel” a student to “believe in” any given theory. Good teaching—as opposed to a re-education camp—is about exposing students to multiple perspectives and empowering them to reach their own conclusions. Scholars whose work is informed by critical race theory offer certain perspectives; others offer others. Read narrowly, the statement amounts to a carefully phrased defense of free inquiry.
But that’s where the pragmatics come in. The statement may be too subtle for its own good.
The same week that this statement was issued, the governor announced that the state of Florida would no longer allow AP African American Studies to be taught in the state. AP classes have nothing to do with CRT, which is graduate-level theoretical work. But the governor isn’t using the term “CRT” to refer to what it actually is; he’s using it as shorthand to attack any perspective on history or society that strikes him as insufficiently patriotic or deferential.
In that context, it’s unsurprising that even an industry journal as attuned to such matters as Inside Higher Ed ran a headline claiming that “Florida Community College Presidents Come Out Against CRT.” That’s not literally what they did—they came out against compelled belief, which is not the same thing—but given the political climate, the distinction was lost. That’s where I’m uneasy with it.
Carefully parsed splitting of differences may work when negotiating with a good-faith actor. When the other actor isn’t acting in good faith, though, careful parsing won’t save you. If anything, it may come across as appeasement. Had I only read the headline, I would have come away with the impression that the colleges agreed with the governor’s decree to ban impure thoughts.
The actual “compelling” that’s going on is by the state, on the colleges. Colleges know that their funding and licensing may be on the line if they stand on clearly stated principles. The governor has made it clear that he considers politics a zero-sum game of warring camps in which procedural safeguards are optional. AP African American Studies sounds liberal to him, so it’s out. Accreditors might raise an eyebrow at a frontal assault on academic freedom, so he decrees that Florida’s colleges have to switch accreditors every cycle to prevent follow-through. New College sounds liberal, so it’s time to engineer a purge. The pattern is clear and obvious.
From a distance, it would be easy to say that the statement is either complicit or naïve. Given the fate that could befall a college that runs afoul of that governor, though, I can understand the appeal of trying to finesse the issue until the heat blows over. In some contexts, that strategy—a variation on harm reduction, or perhaps on Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope—can work. In this case, though, the governor is picking up steam and getting more ambitious with each apparent win. The abuses are coming faster, and he isn’t even bothering with euphemisms or fig leaves at this point. If the statement buys some time to develop a broader strategy, then that’s OK. But if it’s the sum total of their resistance to ideological policing, it’s not going to work. The public will see it as just another win for the governor, emboldening him for the next abuse.
Pragmatics matter. This will take much more than finessing definitions.