It took our new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos nearly two and a half weeks after her confirmation to address issues related to higher education.
Her statement, a few lines in a brief speech, foreshadowed a rocky and highly politicized future to come for higher education in the next four years.
DeVos gave only a four-minute speech last Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference. She chose to frame her take on higher education in terms of a “fight against the education establishment” and claimed that professors don’t intend to educate but prefer to “tell you what to do, what to say and more ominously, what to think.” DeVos finished her thoughts by saying the threat at universities today is not Donald Trump or his supporters, but attempts to silence people’s political opinions.
DeVos’ comments imply a contradiction and illustrate how deeply she fails to understand how modern universities, and their students, operate. And if her brief words are any indication of her plans for higher education in the future, then it looks like the political divides forming on college campuses are likely only to widen — while important issues like tuition costs and post-grad unemployment flounder.
DeVos doesn’t seem to notice the logical inconsistency that makes her statement problematic. First, making a political statement that could be at odds with the opinions of conservative students in a classroom is not a threat to free speech — it’s the crux of it. To suggest that professors should be barred from speaking about politics or ideology in the classroom would be silencing their First Amendment rights — a stance that ultimately seems inconsistent with her conservative ideals.
And her grievances against silencing conservative students are off base. Conservative students do, admittedly, have fewer outlets to comfortably express their opinions but political ideology is a choice, and one that can and should be defended. Criticism of one’s politics isn’t silencing and DeVos’ attempt to pass that off as a violation of free speech is a disservice to all students and debate in and outside the classroom.
Her comments also show how woefully out of touch the secretary of education is with college students today, both conservative and liberal. While higher education is often liberal-leaning, there’s no hard evidence to suggest that tendency translates into the forced indoctrination of college students into liberal ideologies.
DeVos implied that college-aged students aren’t capable of thinking critically or forming their own opinions, but are easily manipulated and brainwashed by their professors. Professors do have influence over students, just as peers do, but to assume students today lack the insight or agency to see through potential bias and form their own thoughts vastly underestimates America’s students.
DeVos’ speech in terms of higher education was concerning on many levels. But perhaps the most concerning part is that in her first public stance, she chose to focus on stirring up political issues on campuses and avoided mentioning any ambitions to tackle issues like affordability or student debt.
No teacher or educator should ever be interested in a “fight” against education if they have the students’ best interests in mind.
Hopefully DeVos has more to offer when it comes to higher education over the next four years but, so far, we’re not optimistic.