Fla. Anti-Communism Course Is Divisive Cold War Legacy
St Petersburg, Fla--Spero McConnell was teaching social studies in Miami when Florida's unique "Americanism versus Communism" curriculum requirement first went into effect.
The year was 1961. John F. Kennedy was in the White House, Nikita Khruschev was in the Kremlin. The ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion was a recent and still painful memory.
Mr. McConnell says he remembers well the political mood in the Miami school system--and in the rest of Florida--at the time.
"We had to sign a loyalty oath before we were allowed to teach," said Mr. McConnell, now the director of social studies for the Pinellas County school system, the 24th largest in the country.
"We were all caught up in the cold-war mentality. People believed there were subversives in every segment of society, including the schools."
Largely as a result of that belief, Florida legislators that year passed a law requiring all high-school students to take a course extolling the virtues of "Americanism" over communism. The legislators said they wanted to make sure Florida students understood the true nature of the "communist threat." After all, they said, Castro's Cuba lies only 90 miles south of Key West.
Twenty-two years later, another group of Florida lawmakers is wondering whether their predecessors went a bit too far.
These legislators think the mandate should be repealed and have filed three bills this year that would do just that. They say the "Americanism versus Communism" requirement is hypocritical because it encourages the use of propaganda in Florida's public schools. They say everyone would be better served if the anticommunism course were replaced with a class on comparative economic systems.
The Florida Senate has already given its stamp of approval to one of the three bills. Some time this month, the legislation is expected to come up for consideration in the Florida House of Representatives. It has already been approved by the House's education committee.
"Nobody is saying that communism isn't evil; we just think we can make better use of the class time bringing out the good points of the American system," said Roger Nichols, Florida's deputy commissioner of education.
But others aren't so sure.
Several Cuban-American legislators have promised they will fight to save the mandate. They say it is even more necessary now than it was in 1961.
"All you have to do is look at a map to see that communism is growing in power," said State Representative Ileana Ros of Miami. Ms. Ros left Cuba in 1960 when she was 7 years old and now operates a private elementary school just north of Miami. She is one of the strongest proponents in the legislature of retaining the course.
"Some people want to say that this is a Cuban issue, but that's just not true," Ms. Ros said. It's an issue for every American who loves democracy."
Although Florida education officials say no two school districts meet the "Americanism versus Communism" requirement exactly the same way, the wording of the law is quite explicit: "The 'Americanism versus Communism' course shall lay 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.
"No teacher or textual material assigned to this course shall present communism as preferable to the system of constitutional government and the free-enterprise competitive economy indigenous to the United States." Randy Felton, a social-studies consultant to the state department of education, said the law requires all schools to provide at least 30 hours of instruction in the advantages of Americanism.
In Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, Mr. Felton said the requirement is met with a six-week unit in either a world-history or geography class.
In rural Bay County, he said, the unit is included in an American-history course.
Not surprisingly, Miami schools give the requirement more emphasis than most others, Mr. Felton said. Dade County school officials require students to take a semester each of "comparative political systems" and "comparative economic systems." Most state educators agree there are two major problems with the Americanism versus communism requirement as it is currently written.
First, they say, the legislation encourages teachers to take a less-than-objective approach to the subject. According to the law, teachers cannot show communism as superior to the American way of life in any respect.
"Theoretically, that means you can't even say the Soviet Union makes better vodka," Mr. McConnell said.
But that doesn't bother some Florida lawmakers.
"I think that our children need to know why they're lucky to live in this country," said State Representative Roberto Casas, a Republican from Hialeah.
Educators--and even most of the legislators fighting hard to retain the state mandate--agree that many of the textbooks used for the course constitute another major problem. The Meaning of Communism, for example, is approved by the state for use as a textbook. It was published in 1963. This is the way it describes Soviet intentions towards Western societies:
"Communism has no interest in helping to create a stable world order, except where temporary stability enables it to prepare its next offensive against peace. Communism regards total disorder--lawlessness and revolution--as the necessary forerunner of its triumph. When it cannot win outright, Communism prefers chaos to compromise."
But Florida school officials say that book seems objective compared to another 1963 text--The Masks of Communism, by Dan N. Jacobs--approved for use as supplementary reading. This is the first paragraph of that book: "Today, the United States is threatened by an enemy dedicated to its destruction. That enemy is communism, whose leaders promised that in two generations or less they will 'bury' the American way of life and the system it represents. There can be little doubt that the men who guide the communist machine are not only convinced that this can be done, but they are determined that it will and must be done."
Mr. McConnell said most teachers use more up-to-date textbooks and turn to the earlier text only for its account of Russian history. But he and others agreed that there remains a tendency for some teachers to take an "us versus them" approach to the subject.
"Sure it happens," said Henry Moore, the assistant principal for instruction at Gibbs High School in Pinellas County. "People always tend to slant toward their biases."
"We do our best to discourage it," Mr. McConnell said, "but there's only so much you can do. That's one reason we try to emphasize a comparative approach.
"We believe if teachers just present all the facts, kids will be able to see for themselves which system is better."