Speaking at an education town hall in Des Moines on Monday, President Obama said something that some people apparently find surprising.
In response to an audience question about GOP presidential contender Ben Carson's call for the Department of Education to withhold federal funding from colleges that exhibit "extreme political bias," Obama told the crowd he wasn't sure what the candidate meant. But then Obama said some things about political correctness and about inviting non-liberal and even offensive viewpoints on to campus.
This is the heart of what Obama said:
"I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative, or they don’t want to read a book if it had language that is offensive to African Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women,” Obama said Monday while speaking at a town hall meeting at North High School in Des Moines. “I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either -- that you when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.”
Obama, who spent just more than a decade teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago, said what the vast majority of college faculty think about intellectual freedom and freedom of expression on campus: Ideas need not be popular, palatable or even easy to digest to merit discussion. College is a place where ideas of all kinds should be openly explored. Theories are, after all, like viruses; they build on one another.
Where policy and political ideas are concerned, some understanding of history -- of that which has been tried, the results it produced and that which has not -- is also critical, as is some understanding of opposing points of view. Again, that's something that just about any serious thinker, teacher or writer will tell you. That's precisely why reading widely and talking about points of disagreement openly are regarded as part of the college learning experience.
So what Obama said is not a rare position for anyone who has taught or continues to teach on the nation's college campuses. And perhaps most notably, his comments are consistent with what others have to say about Obama's time at the University of Chicago, too.
“I remember thinking, ‘You’re offending my liberal instincts,’” Mary Ellen Callahan, one of Obama's former students and now a privacy lawyer, told the New York Times in 2008.
Maybe the student behind the question at the Monday town hall or the conservative and liberal bloggers who wrote about it wanted the president to weigh in on the spate of student protests, petitions, public anger and formal complaints filed when universities have invited speakers who espouse ideas unpopular with young Americans or that are more traditional or regarded as insufficiently progressive among student activists.
The same has happened to professors who wrote or spoke publicly about the growing share of students who seem to want to avoid disturbing material or to be excused from class when ideas with which they don't agree will be discussed. But any real surprise to about Obama's response probably has more to do with the increasing availability of politically silo-ed news and political commentary than anything else.
Just consider the clearly divided way that people with different political leanings glean their public-affairs news, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center Analysis: