January 17, 2024

Florida, Don’t Deprive Public College Students of the Opportunity to Develop their Sociological Imaginations

Stacy Torres author photoBy Stacy Torres

Even though I’m a professor, sometimes I fantasize about going back to college. Everyone should have the chance to experience that electric feeling of discovery. General education requirements exposed me to worlds I scarcely imagined as the first person in my family to go to college. I remember the thrill of encountering new subjects such as philosophy, theology, Spanish literature, art history, ancient Greek and Roman history. Like many high school students, I’d never had the opportunity to take classes in the social sciences, including anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology.

I could have never predicted an introductory sociology course would change my life.

I majored in comparative literature, but sociology provided me with another crucial lens to understand the world and myself. As I lived through the social problems in my textbooks, more than ever, I saw the relevance of sociology to my life. Most students who study sociology will not become professors like me, but they will use their sociological insights to build families, relationships, workplaces, and community. As an instructor, I aim to develop my students’ “sociological imaginations”—a term coined by the sociologist C. Wright Mills to describe how our personal biographies intersect with larger structural and historical realities—and to strengthen the fundamental intellectual skills necessary to succeed in whatever academic and career paths they choose.

But a recent move by the Florida Board of Governors to remove introductory sociology from the courses that state public college students can take to fulfill their social science general education requirements unnecessarily curtails educational possibilities, future career horizons, and civic engagement. We should all worry about what happens in the Sunshine State. If approved, the removal sets a dangerous precedent, potentially serving as the catalyst for dismantling other disciplines across the country. If sociology today, what else tomorrow?

At issue is the general education core course list, which the board had recently updated and expanded, adding two natural science courses and one social science course, a survey of American history to the year 1877. Senate Bill 266, which bars university spending on diversity and inclusion programs, prompted the curriculum review to remove courses that “teach identity politics” or include “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States.” The course list had already received public comment and endorsement from the Articulation Coordinating Committee, an advisory group composed of higher education experts. The proposed removal of sociology came as a last-minute amendment, introduced by state Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., during a meeting of the board's Academic and Student Affairs Committee. A short public comment period has since passed, with the change subject to a final vote January 24th.

The course removal may seem like a dry administrative issue,  but it has grave consequences for public higher education and intellectual freedom nationwide. We might like to believe that such educational disenfranchisement can’t happen elsewhere, such as blue-state California where I teach, but the political swings of the past several years should caution everyone against becoming complacent.

Without formal comment from Mr. Diaz, the rationale behind the proposed elimination has remained opaque. But recent statements on X betray his ideological opposition to the discipline:

Sociology has been hijacked by left-wing activists and no longer serves its intended purpose as a general knowledge course for students. Under @GovRonDeSantis, Florida’s higher education system will focus on preparing students for high-demand, high-wage jobs, not woke ideology.

The American Sociological Association aimed to clarify what sociology is:

It is the scientific study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behavior. Sociologists investigate the structure of groups, organizations, and societies and how people interact within these contexts. Since all human behavior is social, the subject matter of sociology ranges broadly. Our association has 53 interest groups for sociologists studying topics including, for example, aging and the lifecycle; communication and information technologies; consumers and consumption; crime; international migration; organizations, occupations and work; politics; science, knowledge and technology; social dimensions of the law; and social dimensions of medicine.

Most immediately, Florida’s sociology departments will suffer from eliminating a key entry point for students into the discipline. Plummeting course enrollments will gut programs and inevitably slash research funding and training opportunities. Department heads across the state have strongly objected to the proposed change.   

Given my experience teaching sociology in two of the largest state university systems in the country, the State University of New York and the University of California, I worry about the consequences of this precedent for widening inequality in higher education. The majority of students I teach in the sociology doctoral program at UC San Francisco have earned prior degrees from California’s public universities, impressing upon me the stakes of upholding research excellence and nurturing a diversity of ideas at every level of training. Developments in Florida will give private university students greater opportunities and access to course offerings than their public institution peers, who will get far less for their tuition dollars. The restrictive intellectual environment is also becoming increasingly unattractive to academics, hampering faculty retention and recruitment at these state schools.

Wherever we live, we must all remain vigilant in safeguarding our educational infrastructure, which takes decades to build but can be undone with the stroke of a pen or last-minute suggestion in a meeting, whether due to political motivations or cost-cutting strategies. Our future—and a thriving democracy—depends on it.

Education should expand our minds and excite our imaginations. Limiting knowledge capriciously and arbitrarily narrows young people’s worlds, separating them into two Americas, divided by exposure to different ideas. Instead of trusting students to assess and decide for themselves which hold value for them, politicians and educators risk denying them tools to understand their world as they come of age in a time of sociopolitical upheaval.

Despite our technological advances, we haven’t yet invented a time machine. Once we graduate, few of us can go back to school, including professors like me. But at least I grew up in a time of intellectual riches, spoiled by all the choices I was offered. Today’s college students will never recover the knowledge they’re deprived of during this special window for their intellectual and social development. Instead, they will enter professional fields as varied as healthcare, law, education, and social work, less prepared to solve the urgent social puzzles of our time, thereby impoverishing us all.


I support the Florida decision.
Indeed students themselves should develop their independent and critical thinking skills. This includes diverse ideological viewpoints. Sociology does not provide this.
Of course, the issues sociology study are important. The question is whether the sociological lens (or imagination) is the best approach.
Also, sociology has become an activist field justifying left-progressive ideological perspectives.
This is much more the case in sociology than other disciplines

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