It’s hard to overstate the irony — however unintended — in the speech Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave this week on Constitution Day.
On Monday, DeVos was at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center to mark Constitution Day, which Congress created in 2004 to expand students' understanding of the nation’s founding document. On Sept. 17 each year, schools that receive federal funding are supposed to offer some type of “educational program” about the Constitution. (There is, however, no enforcement mechanism.)
DeVos used the occasion to talk about free speech on college campuses, civic education, truth and more. What she didn’t say was as remarkable as what she did say. For example:
. . . What’s happening on campuses today is symptomatic of a civic sickness.
The ability to respectfully deliberate, discuss and disagree -- to model the behavior on display in Independence Hall -- has been lost in too many places. Some are quick to blame a “tribalization” of America where groupthink reigns. Others point to the rise of social media where, under the cloak of anonymity, sarcasm and disdain dominate.
Certainly, none of that improves our discourse. But I think the issue is more fundamental than that. And it’s one governments cannot solve.
The issue is that we have abandoned truth.
DeVos attacked colleges for abandoning truth.
What she didn’t say was that the president for whom she works utters, on average, more than eight lies a day, according to The Washington Post. His mistruths and exaggerations have become a central feature of his presidency, reported on virtually every day.
President Trump isn’t the only member of his administration who has been caught abandoning the truth, of course.
To name just a few: former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI; former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI; Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, who pleaded guilty to crimes including campaign finance violations related to hush money paid to women who allegedly had affairs with Trump. Et cetera.
DeVos most likely did not intend irony in her speech about abandoning truth, but it’s there nonetheless.
Then there was this from her speech:
And all too often, students do not learn about our Constitution and our freedoms in the first place. I think of a survey conducted some years ago by Philadelphia’s own Museum of the American Revolution. It found then that 83 percent of Americans did not have a basic understanding of our Founding. In fact, more Americans knew that Michael Jackson wrote “Billie Jean” than knew who wrote the Bill of Rights -- or even that those Rights are amendments to our Constitution.
What does that say about America’s schools? According to the 2014 Nation’s Report Card, only 18 percent of eighth graders had a proficient knowledge of American history. And in previous years, high school seniors did even worse: only 13 percent were proficient or better.
Just think about the real-world consequences of those sobering statistics.
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?
DeVos expressed such pronounced concern about a lack of civics education that you might be surprised to learn that her Education Department sought to cut money for it in the 2018 and 2019 budget proposals. Congress refused to go along.
And there was this from her speech:
Today, freedom -- and the defense of it -- is needed more than ever, especially on our nation’s campuses.
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. These are formative years: times and places to learn, to be challenged, to grow and to make mistakes. Learning is enriched by what each individual student brings to that experience . . . if -- and only if -- that environment is free and open.
Today, precious few campuses can be described as such. As the purpose of learning is forgotten, ignored or denied, we are inundated daily with stories of administrators and faculty manipulating the marketplaces of ideas.
Take what recently happened to a student at Arkansas State University. She wanted to recruit for a student organization she was founding, but soon learned it first had to be approved by the university. Even then, she still had to apply for a permission slip to distribute materials.
And all of the activity had to occur within the confines of a “speech zone,” typically obscure, small, cordoned-off corners of campus where free expression is “permitted.” These so-called “free speech zones” are popping up on campuses across the country, but they’re not at all free. . . . .
. . . Too many administrators have been complicit in creating or facilitating a culture that makes it easier for the “heckler” to win. One prevalent way is when administrators charge students exorbitant fees to host an event or speaker they arbitrarily deem “controversial.” This way, administrators can duck accusations of censorship based on content and instead claim that reasonable “time, place and manner” restrictions are appropriate. . . .
. . . Administrators 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.
Indeed, there has been considerable debate on college campuses about free speech and offensive language. And administrators at some schools have barred offensive political speech. This is not a left-right discussion, as the American Civil Liberties Union, often associated with liberal causes, says: “The First Amendment to the Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Restrictions on speech by public colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution.”
But there’s something ironic about DeVos talking about a First Amendment right when she and the administration she works for seem not terribly concerned about another First Amendment right, freedom of the press.
Putting aside Trump’s constant attacks on the news media as being the “enemy of the people,” the Education Department under DeVos often does not respond to journalists who ask basic questions, and the secretary herself rarely talks to reporters.
The department also has been aggressive in finding internal leakers of unclassified information. Last year, DeVos asked her agency’s Office of Inspector General to investigate whether grounds existed to criminally prosecute employees who had leaked unclassified information and data to journalists. It cited three incidents, between May and October 2017, in which there appeared to be unauthorized release of information, including publication by The Washington Post of material from the department’s budget proposal before it was publicly released.
In a March 29 memo to a top DeVos policy adviser, Aaron R. Jordan, assistant inspector general for investigations, said attempts at criminal prosecution were a bad idea because the department has little written policy or guidance on how employees are supposed to handle information.
One last example from DeVos’s speech:
Now, disagreement about deeply held beliefs can certainly fuel passions and raise decibels. But violence is never the answer. No one should confuse the right to speak with an invitation to use force. Administrators may think they’re doing their part to reduce tensions by censoring certain ideas, but in fact, doing so often inflames them.
And the way to remedy this threat to intellectual freedom on campuses is not accomplished with government muscle. A solution won’t come from defunding an institution of learning or merely getting the words of a campus policy exactly right. Solutions won’t come from new laws from Washington, D.C. or from a “speech police” at the U.S. Department of Education.
Although DeVos said that “a solution won’t come from defunding an institution of learning,” she didn’t note that Trump proposed doing exactly that to the University of California at Berkeley in 2017 after the school canceled an appearance by provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after violent protests the night before.
And although DeVos said solutions won’t come from Washington, D.C., or from “speech police” at the Education Department, she did not say that she thinks the department should not exist, and has said she would be happy to be out of the job.