Betsy DeVos's (mostly) strong National Constitution Day address

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos doesn’t get a lot of respect. She’s recently become the object of a mean-spirited board game and an unflattering play based on her (unflattering) confirmation hearing.

She definitely got off to a rocky start in Washington, partly her own doing, but much of it due to the plain fact that many critics dislike her part in the Trump administration’s gradual dismantling of the federal nanny state and her willingness to unwrap some of the institutional, regulatory, and attitudinal bandages that have shielded young people—college students in particular—from unpleasantness, from the consequences of their own actions, and, I think it’s fair to add, from growing up.

Bravo, say I, for her preference for freedom over regulation, for adulthood over protracted adolescence, and for obliging kids—mollycoddled undergraduates most definitely included—to grapple with reality.

And two-thirds of a bravo for Secretary DeVos’s strong National Constitution Day address the other day in Philadelphia. She did an exemplary job of explaining why free speech is essential for education in a free society, why it’s vital also to acquire basic knowledge about topics like U.S. history and government, to understand the interplay of rights and responsibilities, and to confront and grapple with views that one doesn’t agree with and may even abhor. She bravely flogged the leaders of many American campuses for their misguided and “patronizing” willingness “to shield students from ideas they…just don’t like.” She deplored the conversion of many such campuses into censorious places that have lost faith in the pursuit of truth and that now confine freedom to “obscure, small, cordoned-off corners.”

The Secretary also dug into the curricular challenges that so much of U.S. higher education is failing to meet and how, for example, the widespread neglect of civics in our schools and colleges is resulting in adults who don’t understand how the government is supposed to work. (She somehow failed to point to her boss as a vivid specimen.) And she correctly linked “true freedom” with “virtue and responsibility.”

Why just two-thirds of a bravo for this generally solid and much needed talk? Because she got a little muddy on the purpose of education, declaring that “The fundamental mission of formal learning is to provide a forum for students to discover who they are…” That comes too close to solipsism and too far from the mission of formal education to equip young people with the skills and knowledge that society has decreed they should possess before joining it as responsible, self-sufficient adults and contributing members of something larger than themselves.

Otherwise, good show, Betsy! Let’s have more of it. You may not be a candidate in the near future for an adoring documentary like “RBG” but you can definitely put more distance between yourself and mocking board games.

 
 
Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.