The National Constitution Center is an interesting place. The "nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to the United States Constitution" was signed into existence by Ronald Reagan and the groundbreaking was attended by Bill Clinton. Located in Philadelphia, it houses the Annenberg Center for Education and Outreach; it also includes the Richard and Helen DeVos Exhibition Hall. Monday, it hosted Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for a speech that reads like one of the more honest-- and seriously conflicted-- speeches she has delivered in office.
The Founders discussed and debated and proposed "to the states a national government that would restrain itself by empowering its people." Well, the white penis-endowed ones, anyway. But there is that article of faith that the feds were never supposed to have real power.
The freedom to express ourselves-- through our faith, through our speech, through the press, through assembly or petition-- defines much of what it means to be human.
This freedom, preserved in our Declaration of Independence, comes from the truth that our rights are endowed by our Creator, not by any man-made government.
If you've been waiting for DeVos to let her God flag fly, this speech has it waving at the top of the pole. I have mixed feelings about her definition of Being Human. Yes, expression is important. But does that define humanity? And here's her definition of the mission of education:
The fundamental mission of formal learning is to provide a forum for students to discover who they are, why they’re here and where they want to go in life.
It's the word "discover" that bothers me here. More about that in a bit.
Next is the portion of the speech where she decries, with anecdotes, the loss of free expression on campus, with everything from authorities who regulate what may be said to activists who heckle speakers into silence. Even the requirement to pay for security when you're hosting a controversial speaker comes under fire, as do "free speech zones."
I'm not going to disagree with everything she says on this topic, but I will point out that she's staked out an interesting position for a member of this administration. She calls out a university on a hollow promise that students have free expression "without fear of censorship or retaliation." She criticizes the idea of free speech zones that limit such speech to particular areas. One wonders how she squares this with a boss whose assault on a free press has been relentless, who has called for protestors to be beaten, who restricts the press to a special pen at his rallies, and who very much believes in retaliation against anyone who opposes him.
She goes on to point out that students don't know enough about the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, and she turns that into a criticism of schools, After she runs the sad stats, she says, "Just think about the real-world consequences" of those statistics. Well, yes. The consequences include a too-large chunk of the electorate that favors a thuggish authoritarian over the practice of democracy.
When students don’t learn civics or how to think critically, should anyone be surprised by the results of a recent Brookings Institution poll? It found that over half of students surveyed think views different from their own aren’t protected by the Constitution. Is it any wonder a growing number of students also say it’s OK to shout someone down when they disagree? And is it any wonder too many students even think that violence is acceptable if you disagree with someone?
The problems she's describing are real, but she might as well ask, "How do we counter these beliefs when they are all modeled, amplified and praised by the President of the United States?" She calls the problem on campuses a "civic sickness" that cannot be solved by federal intervention or government muscle. She notes that tribalization and social media have made things worse. But she points elsewhere to the heart of the problem.
The issue is that we have abandoned truth.
Learning is nothing if not a pursuit of truth. Truth – and the freedom to pursue it – is for everyone, everywhere. Regardless of where you were born, who your parents are or your economic situation, truth can be pursued and it can be known. Yet, students are often told there is no such thing.
This, then, is the problem. A "relativistic culture" that leads to symptom like this:
I think of the teacher who blithely wears a shirt that reads: “Find your truth.” Poor advice that is plastered on the walls of the classroom for her unsuspecting young students to absorb, as well.
Oddly enough, I think of a man who calls everything he disagrees with "fake news" and who has told more baldfaced lies in office than perhaps any other major political leader in our history. And I point this out not to say, "Neener neener, you're a big hypocrite," but merely to observe that DeVos can be just as relativistic as the rest of us.
Her office didn't print "truth" with a capital T, but they should have. DeVos is a believer in Truth, that there is Just One Right Answer in any situation. She's certainly not alone in this, but it creates a host of problems in the business of integrating one's belief's as well as dealing with people whose Truth is different from yours.
But if you believe there is just one Truth, then education is about receiving and retaining that Truth. As DeVos puts it, "if ultimately there are no facts-- if there is no objective truth-- then there is no real learning."
But she is conflating facts and truth, much like conflating knowledge and wisdom. She wants a world built on "objective truth," in which we can identify "objective good and objective evil." It's morally simplistic and ethically shallow. And it's extremely brittle. This is the kind of thinking that requires you to throw people like Galileo in jail-- because there is just one Truth and we already know it.
DeVos extols critical thinking and reasoned argument, but if her premise is that all critical thinking and reasoned argument must inevitably lead to One True Answer, then I'm not sure those words mean what she thinks they mean. Again-- DeVos is not all alone here. Most of us have worked with that teacher who says on one hand, "I want my students to think" and on the other hand "The proof that they're thinking well is that they get the answer I believe is correct." And that itself gets complicated. Some things fit in this framework-- two plus two always equals four-- but others don't-- the causes of World War I can never be finally determined.
Within this framework, the freedom of expression takes on different meaning. Debate, discussion, shared opinions-- if all of that exists only to guide us to the One True Answer, then not all voices matter. If, for instance, Christianity is the One True Religion, freedom for Muslim expression isn't all that important because critical thinking will lead us to conclude that Islam is a failed, wrong answer.
This also explains the other huge disconnect in DeVos's speech. She calls for engagement with those who disagree with you, and yet she doesn't appear to do so. Ever. She has studiously avoided the press, carefully avoided her detractors and critics, and even when dragged before Congress, never really engaged with their questions or engaged in dialogue with them. And my friends in Michigan say this has all been typical behavior.
But then, DeVos need not engage because there is only One True Answer and she already knows it, so what is she going to get out of engaging with people who are wrong? When she calls for freedom of speech, for dialogue, for engagement, what she means is that people who are wrong need to open themselves up to conversation with people who are right, so that the wrong people can continue their journey to the One True Answer. After all-- if she was not favored by God, if she was not right in tune with His Greater Truth, then why would He have made her so rich?
The final stretch of her speech is remarkably like the home stretch of a sermon. Get out from behind your twitter id and recognize you are talking to real, live human beings. We aren't all saints. DeVos actually admits to having had some bad ideas. She (or someone in her office) turns some nice phrases, like a call for meeting with "open words and open dialogue, not with closed fists or closed minds." And she calls to embrace a "Golden rule of free speech: seeking to understand as to be understood."
There is so much cognitive dissonance to process here. DeVos works for a man who exemplifies the opposite of everything she is saying. And there is very little one can point to in her own conduct, her own filling of the USED office, to show her stated beliefs in action. What exactly has DeVos done to understand the public education system and the people who are committed to what she once called a "dead end." What has she done to understand the teachers who work in public schools? What has she done to understand any of her critics since she took office? Or, after all these years, is she comfortable in the belief that she knows everything she needs to know about all those things.
I've known a hundred people of faith like Betsy DeVos. They master the language of humility and open-mindedness, but it just isn't in them.
A responsible use of free speech, in this sense, is a desire to prove why your ideas are better for your neighbor because you love your neighbor, not because you only want to prove him or her wrong.
Not to see if you can come to a better understanding yourself. Of course we all try to advocate for the ideas that we believe in. But it takes a higher level of patronizing confidence to approach it as , "You poor dear. Can't you just realize your life will be better when you see things my way?"
True freedom is ultimately ordered toward virtue and responsibility. Freedom detached from truth and disconnected from virtue isn’t freedom at all.
This is translated religious language-- "you can't be free if you are in bondage to sin." But her statement only makes sense if you are confident that you know what virtue, responsibility and truth are. This is a moebius strip of a concept-- you can only be free to choose many things if you exercise your freedom by only choosing the one correct thing.
You have to be free only so that you can choose the One True Path. We must have freedom of speech so that we can all say the One True Thing. And implied in all of this is a static reality-- one objective and unchanging Truth.
All of this means that Betsy DeVos and I have fundamentally different ideas about what it means to grow, to advance, to become more fully yourself, to learn how to be fully human in the world. And, following from all that, what an education system should take as its purpose. In the DeVosian model, we tell children that they are there to learn what is right, which is a thing we already know, and they may talk about it, but only as a tool to getting them to where their conception of what is right matches our own. We can talk about personalization, but what it means is that each child has different obstacles keeping her from seeing the One True Answer. We do not create, explore or build meaning and understanding-- we discover it, because all of it already exists. You have some purpose-- maybe to be a rich person who organizes the world, or maybe to be a laborer who works for the rich person-- but that purpose is to be found, not to be made or chosen. Everything is already written; you just have to learn to read it, and your "journey," such as it is, is about your learning to read and accept what has already been written about your life and your world-- and that hasn't really changed just because the world has. Sure, you may be different, and there may be strife around that. That's only because you have not yet learned to accept the Truth about yourself and your proper place in the world.
You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.
There's more, of course. American exceptionalism. Ronald Reagan quote. You can't have both truth and harmony.
How do I think DeVos tolerates working for Trump? I suspect to her he is a buzzing background noise, a necessary irritant as she goes about the work that God and Money have set her to do.
It's a lot to absorb, and if you've never been around this particular world view, it can be hard to grasp. But I will tell you one last thing-- if you're a teacher, somewhere in your building are people who think just like DeVos does.