By Steven Martin Kensington

United States, Education – U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made suggestions at the end of 2017 for priorities the Department of Education (DoE) should have when creating grant programs to fund schools and universities. This proposal was fully completed on March 2 after having taken into account public comments and objections, and was taken into effect on April 2. Eleven priorities were mentioned in the document, and they asserted that the goal of these was to ‘support and strengthen the work that educators do every day in collaboration with parents, advocates, and community members.’

The eleven priorities the DoE now need to follow when considering their grant programs and whom to fund, are:

  1. Empowering Families and Individuals To Choose a High-Quality Education That Meets Their Unique Needs;

  2. Promoting Innovation and Efficiency, Streamlining Education With an Increased Focus on Improving Student Outcomes, and Providing Increased Value to Students and Taxpayers;

  3. Fostering Flexible and Affordable Paths to Obtaining Knowledge and Skills;

  4. Fostering Knowledge and Promoting the Development of Skills That Prepare Students To Be Informed, Thoughtful, and Productive Individuals and Citizens;

  5. Meeting the Unique Needs of Students and Children, Including Those With Disabilities and With Unique Gifts and Talents;

  6. Promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) Education, With a Particular Focus on Computer Science;

  7. Promoting Literacy;

  8. Promoting Effective Instruction in Classrooms and Schools;

  9. Promoting Economic Opportunity;

  10. Encouraging Freedom of Speech and Civil Interactions in a Safe Educational Environment, and

  11. Ensuring That Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families Have Access to High-Quality Educational Options

Many of these priorities are worth highlighting, but the 10th is especially significant.

Free speech is under threat on U.S. campuses today. Ruth Sherlock, a US editor from Harvard University, among others, writes about the threat of ‘safe spaces’ to free speech on campuses. She mentioned a Law professor at Harvard, who had allegedly asked a colleague to ‘not use the word “violate”, as in “does this conduct violate the law,” because it might trigger distress.’ She cited Nadine Strossen, a law professor and former head of the American Civil Liberties Union, who spoke of how the term has changed from being a place of refuge to defend against racial prejuice and sexism to mean ‘protection from exposure to ideas that make one unconfortable.’ She also said that ‘in this new hyper-politically correct environment, comedians have pulled out of performing on what used to be the lucrative campus circuit.’ A more serious example is speakers being shouted off of campus for having controversial opinions, like with Milo Yiannopoulus’ – a Conservative gay Jew – visit to Berkeley University in September last year, where, according to Time

Protesters linked arms and chanted slogans like, “Nazi scum off our streets!” and “Right wing fascists go away! Ho ho! Hey hey!” When backers of President Donald Trump started a chant of “U.S.A.,” some responded by repeating, “Humanity first!”

This caused an all-out riot, with anarchist members of Antifa breaking windows of stores and generally wreaking havoc in the area. All that for someone voicing their opinions.

At the University of Utah, Ben Shapiro – another Conservative Jew – was shouted at by protesters to ‘go to hell,’ for having Conservative opinions, without them caring to listen to what he actually had to say.

Controversial author of the ‘Bell Curve’, Charles Murray, is another victim of this, who says he goes to about every university he is invited to, but usually gets shouted down due to his past research in the controversial field of IQ differences. He says that this is a general trend in the student population, where there has been a change over the past decade,’they are much more likely to be offended, upset, ready to be triggered, than they were before.’ He also said that he thought that it was likely that most of the protesters had never read a paragraph of his work.

The examples mentioned here are only some of many, but what we see here is a clear continuity of attacks against free speech on campuses, and this is particularly the case in the U.S., though it has also become a growing problem in Canada and UK. This is why it has become so important nowadays to support this invaluable human right – to be able to say whatever you want without being punished for it. It may be argued against this that there are hateful speech out there, and that’s certainly true, but the problem is who is going to define what ‘hateful’ means in this context, and where the boundary lays between ‘offensive’ and ‘hateful.’ Canadian psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson says about this that, ‘you can’t say something important about anything ever, without offending. Important speech about important issues, especially contentious issues, is instantly offensive,’ and adds with an illustration,

I can’t offend you — all right, fair enough. What if I’m speaking to 10 people? Do I get to offend one in 10? How about one in 100? How about one in 1000? You’re going to come out onstage and you’re going to say something important about something vital and you’re not going to offend one person in 1000?

With DaVos’ suggested priorities having come into effect this week, schools must comply with the program to receive funding from the DoE. They denied to specify what strategies they planned to use in this program regarding this priority ‘in order to provide maximum flexibility for applicants to identify strategies that address their contexts and needs and ensure a safe environment that supports learning, minimizes disruptions, and increases respect for differing perspectives,’ but showed strong support for freedom of speech on campuses and schooled those criticizing the proposal:

Discussion: We appreciate these contributions to the public debate about free speech at educational institutions. The challenges to free speech on college campuses are particularly acute where students wishing to speak freely have been prevented from doing so due to speech codes, which are all too common among the Nation’s postsecondary institutions. Violence has arisen in response to peaceful speech. Topics such as the cost of protecting fundamental rights including free speech, the value of listening to diverse viewpoints, the academic freedom debate over which perspectives are academically reasonable among educated persons, the difference between promoting free speech and promoting the content of particular speech, the difference between speech and conduct, and the importance of free speech for children as well as adults are all topics on which applicants may choose to develop projects under this priority.

This shows a clear signal from the Department of Education that they are aware of the issues of free speech in the education system in the United States today, and that they are willing to do something about it. President Trump himself spoke out against the University of Berkeley on February 2 last year after the Milo incident, where he asserted that ‘if U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?’ There has been several disappointments with the administration regarding the recent protectionism with tariffs on steel and aluminium, the call for trade war, interventionism, the omnibus bill, among other issues, but there is hope that the administration will make the right decision on free speech on college campuses, and find the right ways to deal with them. If free speech is taken away from the education system, can it then truly be called ‘education’ anymore? For education is, after all, being exposed to ideas which you are hitherto unfamiliar with.