In a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Monday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that American college campuses were doing their students a grave disservice by giving in to the anti-free speech demands of a few. DeVos, who is one of the left’s most hated enemies inside the Trump administration, called on educators and students to open their minds, learn to debate the subjects most important to them, and eschew the temptation to create an echo chamber around them.
Speaking in an era where speakers (including herself) have been de-platformed by either official college decree or by unofficial in-the-moment campus disruptions, DeVos said that universities around the country have become battlegrounds – not of ideas, as they should be, but for the very right to speak and be heard.
“More than a few institutions have been unwilling to provide a forum for their students to discuss serious policy matters that affect our country. I can and have found other forums, but what about students who cannot?” DeVos said.
Administrators, she said, “too often attempt to shield students from ideas they subjectively decide are hateful or offensive or injurious, or ones they just don’t like. This patronizing practice assumes students are incapable of grappling with, learning from, or responding to ideas with which they disagree.”
This is the problem in a nutshell.
As Jonathan Haidt puts it in his extraordinarily timely new book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” this treatment of our youngest students is exactly what they DON’T need to succeed and be happy in life. All the research on human psychology has proven that people with PTSD and other anxious fears get better through exposure to the very thing that “triggers” them.
Today’s students want to live in a world where they never have to confront anything that makes them feel “unsafe,” and they are not being taught the truth: Words only make you feel unsafe if you make the choice to allow them. Instead, they’re being taught that their fears are real and valid and that it’s more important for them to be protected then to let everyone access the public arena of ideas.
Betsy DeVos said that while she was determined to be an advocate for free speech, she did not think the solution would come from heavy-handed federal interference.
“Solutions won’t come from new laws from Washington, D.C., or from a speech police at the U.S. Department of Education,” she said.
Instead, she insisted, it would come from a cultural shift that put more emphasis on debate, discourse, civility, and civics.
If so, we certainly hope that shift is coming. Because the road we’re on now is heading nowhere.