Speaking at the National Constitution Center's annual Constitution Day celebration in Philadelphia on Monday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke of the attacks on freedom perpetrated on college campuses around the nation, asserting, “As the purpose of learning is forgotten, ignored or denied, we are inundated daily with stories of administrators and faculty manipulating marketplaces of ideas.”
DeVos began by sending a message of goodwill to the victims of Hurricane Florence, noting, “I know there were those who wanted to be with us today, but couldn’t because of the storms. Someone dear to me and to this Center – my father-in-law Rich DeVos – would have liked to be here, too. He loved this Center. Thank you for your prayers and heartfelt condolences during a tough week for me and my family.
Then she got down to business.
Pointing out, “Our Constitution became the standard for freedom-loving people throughout the world by design, not by accident. The Framers gathered just a few steps from here 231 years ago – willingly and freely – to discuss, debate and propose to the states a national government that would restrain itself by empowering its people,” DeVos commented, “Our “first freedoms” – and what we do with them – shape our lives. The freedom to express ourselves – through our faith, through our speech, through the press, through assembly or through petition – defines much of what it means to be human.”
This freedom, preserved in our Declaration of Independence, comes from the truth that our rights are endowed by our Creator, not by any man-made government. And for a time, that was… “self-evident.” But along the way, these Founding principles have been taken for granted. Today, freedom – and the defense of it – is needed more than ever, especially on our nation’s campuses. … As the purpose of learning is forgotten, ignored or denied, we are inundated daily with stories of administrators and faculty manipulating marketplaces of ideas.
DeVos cited various examples to buttress her perspective, then continued:
Administrators too often attempt to shield students from ideas they subjectively decide are “hateful” or “offensive” or “injurious” or ones they just don’t like. This patronizing practice assumes students are incapable of grappling with, learning from or responding to ideas with which they disagree.
Devos theorized, “The issue is that we have abandoned truth. Learning is nothing if not a pursuit of truth. Truth – and the freedom to pursue it – is for everyone, everywhere. Regardless of where you were born, who your parents are or your economic situation, truth can be pursued and it can be known. Yet, students are often told there is no such thing.”
DeVos attacked the relativism that pervades college campuses:
That notion has taken root in our relativistic culture. Surely we’ve all heard something that goes like this: “You have your truth. And I have mine.” Folks who embrace this notion insulate themselves from other people, other experiences and other ideas. Serious conversation is over. The pernicious philosophy of relativism teaches that there is no objective truth. Nothing is objectively good or objectively evil. “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.
Then Devos went on the attack: “And that, I posit, is the threat that America’s campuses face today. Our self-centered culture denies truth because acknowledging it would mean certain feelings or certain ideas could be wrong … Abandoning truth creates confusion. Confusion leads to censorship. And censorship inevitably invites chaos on campuses, and elsewhere."
She offered a solution: “To that end, we can embrace a Golden Rule of free speech: seeking to understand as to be understood. That is to say, a willingness to learn from any idea, even ones with which you disagree or ones that aren’t your own. It’s also the humility to listen with the understanding that you yourself might be mistaken.
True freedom is ultimately ordered toward virtue and responsibility. Freedom detached from truth and disconnected from virtue isn’t freedom at all.
America is exceptional because of her freedoms. Not simply because they are in the Constitution’s text, but because they are an intrinsic part of who we are. The world knows that, and craves it. Thousands upon thousands of people risk everything to escape tyranny and flee to the United States for a better life … for freedom. But “if we lose freedom here,” Ronald Reagan warned, “there is no place to escape to.”
America is the hope for the world. Let’s resolve to get back to believing in and living out our freedoms in ways our Framers — and our Creator — designed. May we forever cherish, teach, exercise and protect our God-given freedoms. Thank you for having me here today. I look forward to our conversation.