Betsy DeVos accurately diagnoses higher ed’s free speech problem

Sep 18, 2018 by

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

On the occasion of Constitution Day, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivered her first major address on free speech in higher education – and she didn’t hold back.

In her prepared remarks at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, DeVos went beyond merely describing the problem to actually diagnosing its cause: ascendant moral relativism. In that regard, her take was sophisticated, and far more interesting than most complaints about the state of speech in education. “The issue is that we have abandoned truth,” the secretary contended, pointing a finger at “the pernicious philosophy of relativism” which, she said, “teaches that there is no objective truth.”

“Nothing is objectively good or objectively evil,” DeVos continued, summarizing the proliferating worldview. “Truth is only personal point of view, fleeting circumstance and one’s own desires. And those views, those experiences, those desires can be understood only by those who live them. Nothing else and no one else matters.”

“Our self-centered culture denies truth because acknowledging it would mean certain feelings or certain ideas could be wrong. But no one wants to be wrong. It is much easier to feel comfortable in saying there is no truth. Nothing that could challenge what we want to believe,” said DeVos, later adding, “if ultimately there are no facts— if there is no objective truth— then there is no real learning.”

DeVos relied on the examples of several campus controversies (including ones involving herself), and research from Brookings, the RAND Corporation, and Jonathan Haidt, among others, to underscore the severity of the problem. She also endorsed the University of Chicago’s statement on free speech that dozens of universities (still too few) have formally adopted.

“Today, freedom, and the defense of it, is needed more than ever, especially on our nation’s campuses,” DeVos argued, conceding that “precious few” of them “can be described” as free and open, conditions upon which, she contended, real learning is contingent.

Source: Betsy DeVos accurately diagnoses higher ed’s free speech problem

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