A Witch’s Brew Florida

August 9th, 2023 by Tom Lynch

During the summer of my 15th year, my father walked into our very Roman Catholic home to find me reading a paperback book on the couch in our living room. “What are you reading, Tommy?” he asked. So, I showed him the book I was well into. It was The Tropic of Cancer. Whereupon, Dad became somewhat apoplectic, and rushed into the kitchen where my mother was starting to cook supper. “Mary, do you know what your son is reading?” he demanded. “Of course,” my mother replied. “I gave it to him.”

Tropic of Cancer is an autobiographical novel by Henry Miller, published in France in 1934 and, because of censorship, not published in the United States until 1961. And it is racy, indeed. It is also superbly well-written and compelling as it takes the reader on a tour of Miller’s mind as he lived a hedonistic life in the Paris of his youth. We should all be so lucky.

My mother knew a book would never hurt me. People could and would, but not books. And I’m happy to say she eventually convinced my father of the value of that proposition.

And it was my mother who introduced me to the works of William Shakespeare when I was 13. The play was Romeo and Juliet, the story of the star-crossed teenaged lovers from Verona. It’s a story of young love, but also a story of what hate can do when left to run amok. The writing was beautiful, especially to a new teenager whose hormones were flowing like Romeo’s.

Two years later, my sophomore class was assigned Julius Caesar. It was magnificent, and, to this day, is still my favorite Shakespeare play. I can quote large sections. Marc Antony was a part for the ages.

I bring this history up because of what’s happening right now in the Florida of Ron DeSantis where fair is made foul and foul becomes fair.

Like Donald Trump, Governor DeSantis has surrounded himself with sycophants, and the sycophant of the moment is his Education Commissioner Manny Diaz.

Diaz is an interesting character with an educational history that would cause neither Henry James, not his friend Edith Wharton, to sit up and take notice. He’s a politician first and an educator second. With a 1998 Master’s Degree in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, he became a teacher and baseball coach at Miami Springs High School. Following that, he taught social studies at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School, where he spent eight years as an assistant principal. He filed for bankruptcy is 2012, citing $1.3 million in debts.

In the same year, he won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. He became a champion of allowing students to go to private schools on state funding. He also became Chair of the Choice and Innovation and K-12 Appropriations committee during his tenure in the House. More important, he was a key member of Representative José R. Oliva’s team. Oliva rose to become Speaker of the House in Florida.

In 2018, Diaz was elected to the Florida Senate and became closely aligned with Ron DeSantis. So much so, that, like DeSantis, he opposes CoVid 19 vaccine requirements and, as of 2022, was not vaccinated, himself.

He sponsored SB148/ HB7 in the Florida Senate, the “anti-woke” legislation much beloved by Governor DeSantis. This is the legislation called “positively dystopian” by Chief U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker, as he blocked key provisions of it in his 139-page decision in November 2022. Following passage of the anti-woke act, DeSantis appointed Diaz to his current position as Commissioner of Education.

I dwell on Commissioner Diaz because yesterday Florida schools, in order to comply with the provisions of DeSantis’s “don’t say gay” and “anti-woke” legislation, announced high school students would no longer read any Shakespeare play, but would, rather, discuss “excerpts.” From now on, it’ll be Cliff Notes for Shakespeare.

As Joseph Cool, a reading teacher at Gaither High School told the Tampa Bay Times, “There’s some raunchiness in Shakespeare,” and staying with excerpts, schools can teach about Shakespeare while avoiding anything racy or sexual.

This is all part of Florida’s new Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking. Thinking, that is, of a non-prurient nature.

Shakespeare would have loved this Floridian witch’s brew, “The rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril.”¹

More “excellent student thinking” was on display last week, when Commissioner Diaz announced the cancellation of Florida’s Advanced Placement (AP) course in psychology, because the College Board, the administrator of the course, refused to take out any references to gender or sexual orientation.

This AP course has been taught in Florida high schools for the last 20 years without complaint from anyone. In 2022, 28,000 students took the course. However, in May, 2023, Commissioner Diaz’s Office of Articulation (whatever that is) “implored” the College Board to review all AP courses and remove any content that would violate Florida’s new law banning any instruction which may allude to gender identity or sexual orientation.

The College Board, to its credit, said “No.” Gender and sexual orientation, the College Board said, “must remain a required topic, just as it has been in Florida for many years.”

Now, Commissioner Diaz is scrambling to put the toothpaste back in the tube. He has turned to another course administrator, “pivoting to the college-level course offered by Cambridge International instead,” the Tampa Bay Times reports. Cambridge International says it will offer the course without the offending material. However, the College Board, which confirms student AP course completion for inclusion on student transcripts, says any course without the required content regarding gender or sexuality will not qualify.

All of this is now a certifiable mess, a full measure of “double, double, toil and trouble.”²

I wonder what Henry Miller would say? Probably something like (fill in the blank for extra credit):_________.

¹ The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 3, Scene 5)

² Macbeth (Act 4, Scene 1)