At last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was sharply critical of the higher education community: “The fight against the education establishment extends to you, too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say and, more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”
The secretary’s comments, of course, are offensive to most of us in higher education who labor to ensure that our students learn to question assumptions, think critically and creatively, and, above all, think for themselves. But higher education leaders need to do more than dismiss DeVos’s comments. We should acknowledge that many Americans believe the same thing: that higher education is indoctrination in the dogmas of liberalism. I know that my own students question whether it is appropriate for faculty members to advocate for positions they perceive to be political.
It’s time to reframe the discussion. We should ask why this perception exists, whether we have unwittingly contributed to the perception and what we can do to change it.
It is time to clearly articulate the centrality of faculty in challenging our students to think for themselves. When students are tempted to surround themselves with friends and media sources that only support their presuppositions, faculty members need to push them to dig more deeply into issues.
Often it is difficult for students to examine their assumptions. Remember how hard it is when others challenge us to think more critically. We, along with our students, need to understand that critical thinking is not being critical. It entails gathering evidence, questioning assumptions, respecting solid facts, thinking logically, looking at problems from many angles and then building creative solutions. Critical thinking requires us to consider and value the ideas of others, even when we disagree.
And let us savor that moment when our students’ grasp of critical thinking empowers them to disagree with us. We must respect the views of all of our students, whether politically liberal, moderate or conservative. And just as we track and seek to improve the belonging and engagement of students based on race, ability or disability, gender and sexuality, we should pay attention to political and religious conservatives who may feel marginalized.
At the same time, we in the higher education community must resist attempts at intimidation. Now more than ever, it’s time to cherish higher education’s shared values. In these times of division, when there is so much empty and spiteful rhetoric, higher education should unite in rising above adversaries’ words by advocating for inclusion, justice and critical thinking.
I invite DeVos to visit my campus and learn with our students in their classes. She would discover that Augustana, like many campuses, works hard to ensure the voices of all students are heard and valued on campus. She also would see that college students aren’t pliable souls awaiting indoctrination. They tend to be confident -- sometimes too confident.
Our job is to ensure that our students’ gut feelings become informed opinions that they can defend from within a framework of considered values and a system of careful, critical thought. Graduates who are critical thinkers are indispensable to the great institutions of our country, and indeed to democracy itself.
Steven C. Bahls is president of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.
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