Pouring over the bills that survived Iowa legislature’s March 3 “funnel” deadline, I came across House File 12, which immediately gave me a sense of déjà vu. The Republican-sponsored bill would require both public and charter high schools across Iowa to offer a United States government course that would, in addition to covering electoral procedures and the U.S. Constitution, entail a “comparative discussion of political ideologies, including communism and totalitarianism that conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy that were essential to the founding of the United States.”
This bill follows a similar one signed into law in June 2021 by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis which requires high school government courses to include “a comparative discussion of political ideologies, such as Communism and totalitarianism, that conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy essential to the founding principles of the United States.” DeSantis followed up in May, 2022 with a mandate that schools offer at least 45 minutes of instruction about the “evils of communism” on Florida’s newly designated “Victims of Communism Day,” set for November 7.
Florida Senator Rick Scott (R) recently introduced a bill in the U.S. House that would require schools nationwide to teach students “the dangers of communism.”
This sudden urgency to protect the precious minds of today’s youth from the allures of communism whisked me back to my senior year of high school in 1976 (the Bicentennial Year!). I recall whiling away hours in the back of the class, counting down the days until graduation, in a required course dreaded by all seniors titled “Americanism vs. Communism.”
In 1961, following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the Florida legislature passed a law requiring that all students take AVC, as it was universally called, to graduate. In addition to providing students with “a greater appreciation of democratic processes, freedom under law, and the will to preserve that freedom,” the law required that the course place “particular emphasis upon the dangers of communism, the ways to fight communism, the evils of communism, the fallacies of communism, and the false doctrines of communism.”
Initially, the State Department of Education used official reports of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s book A Study of Communism as texts. Instructors were forbidden from presenting communism in a favorable light. The course continued, in various forms, until the law was finally repealed in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
One study of Florida’s “Americanism vs. Communism” law refers to it as an effort to dispense an “official ideology,” mirroring the practices of the political systems the lawmakers intended to warn against.
Now we have been suddenly transported back a half century, which is puzzling. It is not as if the earlier precedent was a stunning success. One researcher interviewed faculty and students who taught or took AVC in Central Florida high schools in the mid-1960s. Students universally panned the course, considering it boring propaganda. I can certainly attest to this conclusion. I recall students with their heads on their desks, films showing red ink blots spreading across the globe to illustrate the communist threat and readings informing us that Karl Marx was a bad father. The teacher appeared to enjoy the course least of all.
Indeed, former instructors interviewed for the study generally disliked being forced to teach pre-cooked answers dictated by politicians rather than genuine social science. The bolder instructors sought to transcend the limitations of the required teaching materials by following established methods for teaching comparative government in the classroom, although this sometimes led to harassment in an environment where faculty were required to take loyalty oaths.
The irony of House File 12 is that it fails to recognize that communism and other forms of totalitarianism have failed in most places where they have been tried precisely because humans are generally averse to propaganda and indoctrination. AVC was a waste of precious class time and a distraction from the kind of education that serves as the real bulwark to closed and rigid ideologies: critical thinking and exposure to a diversity of ideas.
The retro-Cold War classrooms that the current crop of Republican legislators want to create as part of their broader culture war branding may prove good politics in the short run but will not serve any meaningful educational purpose. Perhaps that is the point.