DeSantis' Policies Would Re-write History at 'Dangerous Level': Ken Burns

Renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns blasted Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's education policies, calling his attempt to block critical race theory a "dangerous" re-write of history.

During an appearance on CNN This Morning, Burns, known for documenting American history and culture, said what makes America great is not the "suppression of ideas" but the opportunity to "investigation who we are" as a nation.

"All these bills that DeSantis and others are doing limit our ability to understand who we are," he said. "They are not inclusive, they are exclusive. They're narrowing the focus of what is and isn't American history."

He compared DeSantis' policies to a "Soviet system" of "rewriting of history at the most dangerous level."

"It's a huge threat to our Republic," Burns added, saying the Founding Fathers would be "rolling in their graves."

Ken Burns Blasts DeSantis
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns speaks to the Economic Club of Washington in Washington, DC, on October 19, 2017. Burns accused Florida Governor Ron DeSantis of trying to re-write American history after a bill prosed in the Florida House would eliminate race and gender studies at state universities. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Burns said race is "in everything we touch" not because he's looking for it but because American founded on the principle that all men are created equal.

"The guy who wrote that owned hundreds of human beings and didn't see the contradiction in that," he said. "Our whole history is based in a discussion of race along with the meaning of freedom, and that's complicated too."

Florida Bill 999 & Critical Race Theory

This comes after Burns tweeted his frustrations with Florida Bill 999, a bill that aims to eliminate Critical Race Theory (CRT) and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) from Florida universities.

The bill would allow Florida state university boards of trustees to review tenure status of faculty members and revise requirements for general education core courses. It would allow the boards of trustees to "provide direction to each constituent university on removing from its programs any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality."

One section of the bill reads that general education courses "may not suppress or distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics, such as Critical Race Theory, or defines American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence."

Burns called the bill "an assault on the very liberties articulated by the Founders" and "something that all Americans should speak out against."

The Florida bill is a response from Republicans who have been vocal against teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools. CRT is a higher education theory that examines how race and ethnicity have shaped social, political and legal systems in America, specifically to adversely impact non-white Americans since the country's founding, according to the American Bar Association.

While this is a concept reserved for higher education studies, Republicans in Florida have taken steps to ensure it is not taught in primary or secondary schools.

In June 2021, the Florida Board of Education formally banned critical race theory from public school classrooms to protect children from curricula that they said could "distort historical events.

DeSantis' plan for higher education reform includes a ban on public institutions supporting campus programs or activities that promote "divisive" concepts like CRT and not promote "ideological indoctrination."

He said recently that Florida is required to teach "all aspects" of Black history, including slavery and racial discrimination.

"Critical race theory is basically saying some are oppressors, some are oppressed, so what kind of a message is that sending to these very young kids?" he recently said in a Fox News interview.

He accused the College Board of trying to impose CRT in their AP African American Studies course by including gender theory, intersectionality and what DeSantis called "neo-Marxism."

Florida taxpayers do not want to support "that kind of indoctrination."

Democrats have blasted DeSantis for what some call a government overreach into the state's public education system.

New York Representative Ritchie Torres said the Florida governor went from signing legislation that prevents topics like sexual orientation and gender identity from being taught to children to rallying against Black history.

Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York spoke out against DeSantis' backlash against the College Board, saying he will not let Black history be erased.

"Black history is American history. African Americans are so central to the journey of America," he said at a Black History Month event in Palm Beach, Florida last month. "The pain, the tribulations but also the successes of exceptionalism."

After the midterm elections last November, Jeffries became the first African American to lead a major political party in Congress.

The American Historical Association (AHA) expressed its "horror" with Florida House Bill 999, calling it "a hostile takeover of a state's system of higher education."

"This bill is an extreme version of radical legislation in many states that prohibits the teaching of 'divisive concepts' in history education," AHA Executive Director James Grossman told Newsweek in a statement. "These bills attempt to forge national unity by denying division rather than healing it. By refusing to acknowledge and understand the centrality of racism in the evolution of American institutions, culture, and structures, these prohibitions actually perpetuate division. It is not possible to heal a disease without full medical history. That history must be discussed and understood."

The American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Coalition Against Censorship also rallied against the bill.

In a joint statement, they said the bill would "effectively silence faculty and students across the ideological spectrum and purge whole fields of study from public universities" and make Florida's colleges and universities into "an arm of the DeSantis political operation."

Newsweek has reached out to Governor Ron DeSantis and Representative Hakeem Jeffries for comment.

Update, 3/6/2023, 4:56 p.m. ET: This story was updated with a statement from AHA Executive Director James Grossman.