Dear Betsy DeVos: I’m a Liberal Professor Who Lets ALL Students Speak

As far as academic snowflakes go, I’m as snowflaky as they come.

[Scene 1]

ME: I am Ken. And I’ve been a liberal social justice warrior (SJW) professor for eight years.

AUDIENCE: Hello, Ken.

[End Scene]

But here’s the thing: I’m not just a liberal SJW professor. I’m a gay, Jewish SJW professor who teaches mostly about race and privilege at a small liberal arts college. As far as academic snowflakes go, I’m as snowflaky as they come.

But here’s the other thing: That doesn’t mean that you have to share my views in my classroom. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t voice your philosophy, articulate your vision, or speak your stance in the most authentic manner you can muster.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos says I’m lying when I write that.

In her CPAC address last week, she declared, “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.”

Her statements were as transparently designed to please the partisan audience as they were stunningly untrue. Her words reveal a disconnected view of what is actually happening in the college classroom, instead supplying a cult-like narrative that posits faculty as individual demagogues equal to those who shout/tweet their “truths” about enemies and threats, be they journalists, perpetuators of fabricated massacres, or anyone who dares to dissent.

Now, this is not to say that you may speak your truth in my classes however you so desire. Students need to place their views within a context, taking into account the entire system, not just what they alone know or feel. It goes like this: you want to espouse an opinion? Great. Go for it. Tell me what has informed your position, where you see evidence supporting it, and how you think it will be received by others. This is the standard I set for myself and it is most certainly what I demand of my students, be they liberal, conservative or pastafarian (it’s a thing).

You want to assert that there is no such a thing as white privilege? Great. Go for it. But do so while reconciling the narratives of the students of color around you, the documented wage gaps, and the statistically significant lack of black leadership at all levels of government, corporate America, and education.

You want to assert that Donald Trump doesn’t represent the interests of this country. Great. Go for it. But do so while reconciling the narratives of those who feel left behind by the federal government, the documented economic hardships in the flyover states, and the statistically significant support he received in heretofore blue locales.

You want to assert that Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the one true religion? Great. Go for it. But do so in another class.

I have no doubt that at some point, this structure has proven too overwhelming for a student and they have felt silenced. But let’s be clear: it is having to ground your ideas that does the silencing, not the professor.

College is Dewey’s great laboratory. For many students, it’s their first opportunity to hear unfamiliar arguments spoken by unfamiliar people who don’t “look” like them (in dress, skin tone, political make-up, etc.). We get to wrestle in the classroom with ideas that have divided us, and that very wrestling unites us. My views have been challenged by students, just as much as I have challenged theirs. And we’re all the better for it.

If there is a professor that is not allowing for a thoughtful, based-in-context dissent to be expressed, then that professor is a crap professor. But that crap professor is the exception, not the norm. I will allow for the possibility of a few (A FEW) outlier crap professors to exist, but I will not allow for the Secretary of Education to paint a dastardly and inaccurate picture of my colleagues and I telling students what to do or to think.

It simply is not true.