This Thursday, in a brief speech at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference), Betsy DeVos, the recently confirmed Secretary of Education, criticized folks like me and accused us trying to indoctrinate students. She devoted only a paragraph to higher education, but here’s what she said, after asking how many in the audience were college students:
The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.
Clearly DeVos doesn’t know anything about university faculty or our students. I think all faculty would be happy to have students do what we tell them—that is come to class, do the reading, participate in discussion, write papers, think for themselves, and attend to some of the life of a university such as concerts, plays, lectures.
And while those are all things faculty ask of our students, those are not the things DeVos thinks we do. She thinks we tell students for whom they should vote, what policies they should support, and that they should reject religious beliefs. She also believes we silence students who don’t agree with our positions. But anyone who has spent any time in a college classroom knows this isn’t how things work. That this is a conservative fantasy created to explain why education is such a threat to the right who fear knowledge because it makes it possible for people make informed choices the GOP, of course, is the real threat to the First Amendment as we’ve seen in their attack on journalists and news organizations, and their attempts to control what information the public can access.
In her brief comment, DeVos also makes clear she doesn’t believe today’scollege students can think for themselves. To turn borrow from Freire for a moment, she thinks their
empty vessels sitting in their chairs or at their computer waiting to be filled with their professors’ ideas, research, beliefs, and politics.
Of course, this isn’t the case, nor do any of the professors I know see students in this way. We know our students come to our classes filled with ideas, beliefs and the politics of their family
and friends, their communities and churches, and we recognize part of our challenge is to help them learn how to clearly articulate these things, to bring them out in the open, to understand where
they come from and to see that there are views different from (not better than) their own—in short to provide them with a place where they can exchange, question, and make decisions about all sorts of ideas, beliefs, and political perspectives and do so within the context of history and culture–ours and others. The idea that we could tell our students what to think and they’d simply absorb what we say is so far from reality. But so is everything that folks in the current administration think.