Shouts. Interruptions. Orchestrated chanting. The predictable convulsions of the contemporary university when a conservative comes to town. This time it was U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, speaking to students, faculty, and others gathered at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government last Thursday night. She joined former FBI director James Comey and current attorney general Jeff Sessions as the third cabinet-level official in the span of a week whose visit to a college campus was met with protests, caterwauling, and the now-rote charges of “white supremacism.”
Against this increasingly threadbare backdrop, DeVos delivered what is probably her best speech to date. It was a constructive, serious address from someone whose remarks have not always met that standard. DeVos spoke thoughtfully — at times, even eloquently — about how school choice empowers families, creates room for a healthful diversity, and is wholly consistent with the historic aims of public education.
DeVos rejected the false dichotomy that insists that the case for school choice rests on jeremiads against traditional public schools. She observed: “Education is not a binary choice. Being for equal access and opportunity — being for choice — is not being against anything.” She emphasized the stakes that can be obscured by abstraction: “It’s important for all of us to remember that we’re not just talking about abstract theory or some wild social experiment here. This is about putting people — putting parents and students — above policies and politics.”
She spoke measuredly about American educational performance: “We’re in the middle of the pack, at best, compared to other nations.” She argued that neither students nor the cause of public education are well served by squabbling over the particulars of anachronistic delivery systems, but by broadening our vision of public education
we can rethink school. And, I posit, we do that by embracing the future of education as one that fully integrates “choice” into every decision we make. Not choice translated as vouchers, or charter schools, or private schools, or any other specified delivery mechanism. No. Choice translated as giving every parent in this great land more control, more of a say in their child’s future. More choices. The future of choice lies in trusting and empowering parents — all parents, not just those who have the power, prestige, or financial wherewithal to make choices.
And she adeptly used her Harvard setting to challenge narrow, doctrinaire notions of what constitutes “public” education. As she put it:
The definition of public education should be to educate the public. That’s why we should fight less about the word that comes before “school.” I suspect all of you here at Harvard, a private school, will take your education and contribute to the public good. When you chose to attend Harvard, did anyone suggest you were against public universities? No, you and your family sat down and figured out which education environment would be the best fit for you. . . . Instead of dividing the public when it comes to education, the focus should be on the ends, not the means.
Little of what DeVos said, however, seemed to matter to her “academic” audience, a large swath of which seemed more concerned with its antics than with listening — much less with engaging in any semblance of scholarly give and take. Students stood, raising fists and holding banners reading “White Supremacist” and “Our Students Are Not 4 Sale!” Perhaps fearing that their ratty signage had proven insufficient, as DeVos exited the stage, students chanted, “What does white supremacy look like? That’s what white supremacy looks like!”
The bar has fallen so low that some see a ‘win’ for free speech when a conservative is able to speak at an Ivy League institution without being shouted down or physically assaulted.
The shame of it is that DeVos’s remarks offered plenty of room for common ground and serious discourse. Even if one disagreed vehemently about the merits of educational choice or the performance of America’s public schools, it was a talk that raised questions, acknowledged complexity, and invited back and forth. One should expect nothing less when a high-ranking government official speaks at a great university. After all, that’s precisely why universities have historically played an outsized role in public affairs: because they are places where the great issues of our time can be debated soberly, at a remove from reflexive political theater.
Indeed, before DeVos spoke, Dean Archon Fung of the Harvard Kennedy School spoke earnestly and well about the necessity for intellectual engagement and civil discourse. “What we need most is to listen and understand one another instead of circling the wagons into our own echo chambers,” Fung said. “The Kennedy School is all about understanding differences and building bridges.” Instead, many in the audience greeted DeVos with baseless insults and cheap stunts. This wasn’t just a matter of juvenile self-pleasuring; video from the event makes clear that the distraction of these woke thespians made it hard for much of the audience to follow the remarks.
Yes, it’s true that DeVos was allowed to speak. The bar has fallen so low that some see a “win” for free speech when a conservative cabinet official is able to speak at an Ivy League institution without being shouted down or physically assaulted. But that’s the wrong bar. That DeVos was “permitted” to speak obscures the larger point: If universities are to be of value in the public square, they need to be places where ideas are heard and thoughts exchanged. That requires a degree of decorum and civility that demands much, much more than the tacit agreement not to physically assault a speaker.
If universities are merely places where mobs heckle unpopular speakers while serious remarks are drowned out by chanted slogans, it’s not clear what is gained. We already have Twitter. There’s just not much call for universities to serve as an expensive, bureaucratic Twitter-lite. When serious speakers show up to have substantive discussions, universities and their denizens should be expected to respond in kind. Absent that, a whole suite of privileges that have been accorded to the nation’s colleges and universities for the role they’ve historically played in the public square — from public and philanthropic support to the hosting of presidential debates — need to be assessed in a new light.