When I was growing up, my Florida high school required me to endure a course called “Americanism vs. Communism.” I was hardly alone. Between 1962 and 1991, Florida mandated the class for all high school juniors or seniors in public schools. Each lesson had the same takeaway: “Americanism” was all good and “Communism” all bad.
Keep this history in mind when you hear Florida Governor Ron DeSantis talk about his opposition to the College Board’s Advanced Placement course in African American Studies because it is “woke indoctrination.”
“Americanism vs. Communism” was one of only two statewide requirements for graduation; the other was functional literacy. The top educational priorities in the Sunshine State were apparently reading, writing, and anti-communism. The course title has stuck with me all these years, especially as a college professor of history, because it forecast today’s sham debate about education in Florida.
The concept of “Americanism” dates to the colonial era. It’s meant to identify the nation’s distinctive historical origins and democratic political idioms. Individuals and groups across the political spectrum have marshaled it for varying purposes, including an inclusive vision of citizenship, but also racist anti-immigrant campaigns during the 1920s . Its capaciousness shrunk considerably during the Cold War as political conservatives used it to buttress exclusive ends. The rise of the Soviet Union and the fear of totalitarianism it provoked was an existential crisis that could only be neutered, they believed, with a contrast nationalist creed: Americanism.
Concerned that high school students were vulnerable to a Soviet plot to control the world, the state of Florida designed the course to ensure no teenager be tempted by communism. It defined Americanism as: “the recognition of the truth that the inherent and fundamental rights of man are derived from God and not from governments, societies, dictators, kings or majorities.” Americanism was a system that produced higher wages, a higher standard of living, and “greater personal freedoms and liberty than any other system of economics on earth.”
Florida depicted communism as an “ungodly” ideology promoted by an “enemy” with the “manpower, the resources, and the technological weapons for waging war” against “human freedom.” The state forbade teachers from suggesting that communism was preferable to Americanism and instructed them to warn students of the miseries of those who lived under its aegis.