This oil painting of George Washington, known as the “Landsdowne” portrait, is by Gilbert Stuart from 1796. Florida college and university students can now opt to learn about early American history as one of their required core courses. While adding the course, state officials removed Principles of Sociology as one of required options. [ AP / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution ]

In a move that rankled academics across the country last month, Florida officials removed sociology as one of the core courses students can choose to complete their studies at public colleges and universities.

Manny Diaz Jr., the state education commissioner, likened the subject to “woke ideology” and said it was based mostly in theories, not facts.

In sociology’s place, then, the state inserted a new option for students: an introductory course surveying U.S. history up to 1877.

We talked to history professors about that class, and about the decision that put it at the center of the storm.

What students will learn

The course spans U.S. history from the discovery of the Americas to the end of Reconstruction after the Civil War. It covers Indigenous life in the Americas, the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution as well the slave trade and Manifest Destiny — the notion that God willed America to expand westward across the continent.

Each professor has the freedom to emphasize different portions of the course.

Brian Connolly, the history department chairperson at the University of South Florida, said the decision to make it a core course will require him and others across the state to figure out how to allocate resources. Previously, only one or two sections of the course were offered each semester. It’s not clear how many more students will select it in the absence of Principles of Sociology, which thousands of students opted for each year.

David Head, an associate lecturer of history who’s taught the course for several years at the University of Central Florida, said it offers an opportunity to learn an important part of history, and he’s glad the state wants to emphasize it.

While sociology helps students “see the world through the eyes of somebody so different from you,” he said, history emphasizes what people through the ages have in common.

“We’re not completely different people in the past. It’s teaching how to pay attention to that,” Head said. “That’s part of life, right? ‘You’re like me, but you have very different experiences. How do we get along in this situation?’ History is great for thinking through those things.”

He said the course is one of his favorites to teach because it can vary each semester. His expertise is in the American Revolution. Some semesters he focuses on the experience of childhood in the early Americas, while some of his colleagues choose to emphasize other areas.

He said he enjoys delving into what childhood was like for the Puritans in early New England compared to childhood in Virginia and Chesapeake during the same period, or what childhood was like for enslaved children.

He’s often wondered why it wasn’t a core course before now.

“It would have been ideal if this had simply been added on to the choices rather than replacing somebody else’s class,” Head said. “But I think it’s a solid course.”

The down side

Connolly, the USF department head, said he “a lot of complicated feelings” about the history course being elevated at the expense of sociology.

Students should have the opportunity to learn about “both halves of the American history” he said, but “I don’t think that Principles of Sociology needed to be removed.” The history course, he said, is “certainly not a substitute for the sort of vital work that Principles of Sociology does.”

Connolly and Head also expressed some hesitation about the course, and how it can veer into subjects like race and gender that the state has restricted on campuses. Senate Bill 266, signed into law last year, prevents colleges and universities from engaging in any activism on social issues, defined as “topics that polarize or divide society among political, ideological, moral, or religious beliefs, positions, or norms.”

Faculty fear they can get in trouble if they are seen as crossing a line.

Connolly said he’s never heard of a student complaining because of class content, either in his five years as department head or in the years before that, when he taught courses on the history of sexuality and race.

Still, the anxiety around teaching is real, even if the material is based in fact, according to Head. He recalled an instance almost a decade ago when a student, writing in a course evaluation, took issue with him justifying the Indian Removal Act. To this day, he questions what may have led the student to think that, other than possibly misinterpreting his explanation of the act as support.

“We’re going to do what we’ve always done, which is teach history, as it is currently understood by the specialists in the field,” Head said. “But we don’t know what’s going to happen. Is the current way of presenting the history of slavery, the way that it’s been researched, going to fall afoul of the new laws? Will I misspeak or will (students) not hear it the right way? Could that lead to trouble? And then in the back of your mind is the concern that, well, maybe I shouldn’t even say anything.”

How we got here

The ebb away from sociology came as a result of a new law that required core or “general education” courses to be reviewed, and “whenever applicable, provide instruction on the historical background and philosophical foundation of Western civilization and this nation’s historical documents.”

Education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr.
Education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

A faculty committee was assembled to review the general education course options offered in five categories.

For social sciences, colleges and universities offered six options: Introductory Survey Since 1877, Introduction to Anthropology, Principles of Macroeconomics, American Government, Introduction to Psychology and Principles of Sociology.

The faculty committee recommended adding Introductory Survey to 1877 as an option. They did not recommend removing sociology, but education commissioner Manny Diaz did. After first offering little explanation, he later suggested that sociology was theoretical and “woke.”

Both the State Board of Education, which oversees Florida’s 28 state colleges, and the Board of Governors, in charge of the 12 public universities, went with Diaz’s idea. The Board of Governors issued a news release that said the pre-1877 history course covers “the forces that shaped America.”

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.