Whatever happened to leading with the heart?

I am a Floridian. I am an American. Because I believe that equality, justice, and civil rights are at the heart of all American values, I am considered by many to be “woke.” If that word is intended to mean empathetic, then I guess I am guilty as charged. And given that in most classic studies of the human mind, intelligence is significantly correlated with empathy and pro-social behavior, I also consider myself to be intelligent.

On the surface, I also consider our Gov. Ron DeSantis to be intelligent. He graduated from Yale College and Harvard Law School. DeSantis joined the United States Navy in 2004 and was promoted to lieutenant before serving as a legal advisor to SEAL Team One. These are all stunning accomplishments. And yet he seems to lack fundamental understanding of some key issues around education, at least publicly. And more importantly, particularly for a self-proclaimed Christian man, he seems to lack empathy.

The proof of the last point is more subtle than some of my woke brothers and sisters might casually observe. Despite the viral headlines surrounding the Florida School Board’s approval of the 2023 Social Studies curriculum, which include references to DeSantis’ insensitive quotes arguing that slaves learned valuable skills in slavery, the core of the curriculum as approved by the School Board is actually thoughtful and comprehensive. Among some of the approved strands in the first 20 pages of the State’s Academic Standards are the following:

  • Identify African Americans who demonstrated heroism and patriotism.
  • Examine the service and sacrifice of African patriots during the Revolutionary Era.
  • Describe the contributions of Africans to society, science, poetry, politics, oratory, literature, music, dance, Christianity and exploration in the United States from 1776-1865.

In fact, just about all of the approved strands seem to address critical issues in the history of African Americans, and would appear to shine a light on 400 years of disadvantage, as well as stunning accomplishments by an entire race of people in the face of such disadvantage. And here is where the confusion begins. Why would a man that is seemingly intelligent, who has worked to shape the state’s public school curriculum so meticulously, be so bold and so ignorant as to say that African American history lacks educational value? And does he even believe that?

From my own perspective, any material that inspires us to learn has educational value. And as my friend, business partner, and noted AP African American studies teacher Rashad Brown of East Atlanta often reminds me, when young African American children learn positive stories about their history, they suddenly have an interest in learning and an educational purpose that has not previously been developed. This is because we all have an emotional relationship with learning. Those of us that did well in school generally succeeded early on. We loved the feeling of learning and wanted to learn more, so we studied harder and perpetuated our own positive feedback loop. For children of any race that do not learn quickly or live in less fertile environments for learning, there is immediately a strained emotional connection to learning, and therefore, it is imperative to expose them to subjects that have natural appeal and create a sense of pride.

The real problem is in the narrative of DeSantis’ leadership, and the distinct choice that he makes to divide his constituents over race instead of uniting them. At the heart of this is a complete lack of empathy, an inability to lead from the heart, and an inability to manage the complex factors of modern society.

For John Stuart Mill, one of the great philosophers of all time, the key role of government is to perform two main functions: it must use the existing qualities and skills of the citizens to best serve their interests, and it must improve the moral, intellectual and active qualities of these citizens. This governor has failed dramatically in the latter of these goals, and is a dangerous catalyst of moral erosion. Intellect without empathy is the greatest emerging threat in American political and social life.

Sadly, DeSantis is smart enough to know exactly what he is doing, and he doesn’t seem to care.

John Murphy lives in Orlando.

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