At the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 23, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos continued her campaign against educators, this time trying to pit college students against professors like myself:
Now let me ask you: How many of you are 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.
Nobody who actually teaches college students would see herself in DeVos’s Orwellian portrait of who we are or what we do. For starters, although I’m an effective teacher, I often fail to make my students believe they can find useful information on the syllabi I lovingly craft during my (unpaid) summer months.
I teach law, government, and politics—covering nearly every hot-button issue about which DeVos is convinced I want to indoctrinate my students. Yet the very last thing I want to do is think for them, much less tell them how to vote. If anything, my job is to help them break out of their habit of forming opinions too hastily. Whatever conclusion they reach about a policy or candidate, I urge them not to base it on tribal or partisan allegiance. Instead, I want them to examine every proposal on its merits, and with a critical eye.
Whatever conclusion they reach about a policy or candidate, I urge them not to base it on tribal or partisan allegiance. Instead, I want them to examine every proposal on its merits, and with a critical eye.
As an educator, I believe I’ve done my job well if in the course of my class, a Bernie-supporting Democratic Socialist finds fault with Sanders’ free college plan, proposes ways to improve it, and allows herself to agree with Marco Rubio’s thoughts on the matter. I sleep well at night if a class discussion leads a Ron Paul acolyte to find sympathy with feeding poor schoolchildren, or leads a Clinton supporter to acknowledge that money alone will not fix failing schools. These are big wins for me, for the students, and for our country.
My belief as a professor ― which I believe most share — is that students should be suspicious of easy answers and committed to tough questions. That’s why this passage from Letters to a Young Poet appears on my course portal:
You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. –Rainer Maria Rilke
That’s why the syllabus for Introduction to Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government (“CLEG.” This document is totally free, kids. You can find it here.) is subtitled “Invitation to Consider, Learn, Engage, and Grapple (see what I did there?).”
I’d planned to use Friday’s class as a writer’s workshop, but instead asked my students if they’d be open to a discussion about DeVos’s comments. They agreed. Together, we explored the question of what constitutes responsible neutrality by a professor or university, and to what degree a professor could promote opinions or shut down student speech.
Their views ranged widely. I asked whether a professor could prevent students from jumping on a desk during physics class and reciting the lyrics to Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power.’ Only one student said that this was suppressing speech, and he agreed that the college system is structured to limit speech this way. None thought a professor should call a Trump-voting student a racist, but most agreed a professor could ask them to read an article about Trump supporters’ racial resentment. All agreed that a professor should assign materials supporting both sides of an issue—assuming an issue really has two sides (unlike the birtherism that put DeVos’s boss on the political map). They all believed, as I do, that college students are adults, that they are responsible for advocating for their positions, and that they can survive being disagreed with. Imagine that.
It’s because of who they are and what they are about -- not me and my agenda -- that college students and young people overwhelmingly reject Trumpism.
It was a powerful conversation in which we explored and developed the rules of our learning community together. Only my students can say whether the class vindicated my belief that my classroom is a place of free thought. However, I can say with certainty they proved DeVos grossly underestimates college students, who commit years of their lives and spend a great deal of money to pursue the education in which I’m privileged to play a role.
It’s because of who they are and what they are about - not me and my agenda- that college students and young people overwhelmingly reject Trumpism.
There’s a reason Trump fared poorly among voters under 30, and among college-educated voters (In fact, Trumpism didn’t even appeal to pre-college kids: Clinton won the Scholastic student vote in many red states, with third-party candidates also making a strong showing).
It’s because they’ve grown up among out LGBT friends, with an African-American president, and a technological window on the wider world that most of my students ― even those who espouse traditionally conservative principles such as small government and opposition to abortion ― laugh at our president’s daily rants about the media, and are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of “alternative facts.”
My students, who are pursuing a rigorous education in law and government, have varied opinions regarding how our immigration laws should be enforced. But unlike many Trumpists, their views on the matter are informed by facts. On the other hand, many Trump voters “say that the Bowling Green Massacre shows why Trump’s immigration policy is needed.” I don’t need to tell my students to think that’s a problem. They know it’s a problem because they can think for themselves.
Betsy DeVos is wrong about how I do my job and what we do in college. But when she implies that the educational establishment is a threat to Trumpism, she’s right. It is precisely because we hope to instill an ethos of enlightened skepticism in every student that DeVos needs to vilify college professors. Our students reject Trumpism not because we tell them what to think, but because we expect them to think. In my experience, they never fail to deliver. And that should terrify Secretary DeVos and her boss.