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Voices of Trinity: Trinity Faculty Respond to Secretary DeVos

 
 

DEVosSecretary of Education Betsy DeVos (photo credit)

In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Thursday, February 23, 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made the following statement about contemporary higher education:

“Now let me ask you: How many of you are college students?  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.”

Trinity faculty have responded to this statement with these comments:

Dr. Cynthia Greer, Associate Professor of Education and Counseling:

Dear Secretary DeVos:

As a faculty member at a higher education institution, I refuse to be complicit to an educational system that historically has infused in to the curriculum, at the primary through high school levels, a master narrative that is nationalistic and promotes a white supremacist agenda. Too many young people have graduated from high school where they have been “mis-educated” and have been “de-culturalized”. Some of these students have not learned the complete and thorough history of the Americas and the United States, and therefore have not learned that the wealth of this country has been built on the backs of indigenous people, people of color, and immigrant groups. In my opinion, this omission is deliberate, because the people who compose the power elite in this country are fearful of the truth and as a result have a need to maintain a status quo that promotes a sense of powerlessness among groups who should and need to be cognizant of their cultural groups’ contributions through hard work and the development of resilience.  In our past history, the leadership of the United States, composed of the white wealthy elite, constructed a racial classification system that was developed to condone and enforce their “superior” standing;  the concept of race is not based on science and but a social construct. However, racism and institutional racism are real and embedded in our systems including our educational system. Young people in elementary school should have been exposed to the fallacy of race but in many schools systems this fallacy is not presented in the curriculum. Students should be educated about the “human costs and human impact” of decisions made by people in leadership positions in government as well as those people who have lead our major corporations.

As an outcome of this mis-education, too many students matriculate into higher education without developing the critical thinking skills to distinguish between truth, lies and “alternative facts”, and without sufficient knowledge about different systems of government, such as being able to distinguish between the principles of democracy and fascism.  Some students have not learned about the intersectionality of capitalism, skin color, and the wealth gap in this country. Therefore, many faculty find that they need to help students deconstruct what they have learned in their prior education and help them construct an expanded knowledge base. Faculty help students construct a more inclusive knowledge base by providing an opportunity for students to expand on their worldview through experiential activities and being active participants in the learning process. I expect students to base their opinions based on their lived experience and based on facts, science, and evidence based research, as they learn analysis and synthesis skills, a knowledge base that should have been developed through their secondary education.

Also, I agree with the noted philosopher and educator, Paulo Freire, who stated that “there is no such thing as a neutral education process.” One of the purposes of an education is that it should be transformative.  I tell my students that if they have not been challenged and transformed by their educational experience, a failure has occurred. As faculty, we are not only preparing people for future careers, we are preparing them to be informed global citizens. Dr. Martin Luther King, stated, “there is a need for transformed non-conformists” people who are open to new ideas and who are prepared to handle the complexities of a changing and flat world.

As a Secretary of Education who has not been a classroom teacher, I hope that you will be transformed by your new role, and take the opportunity to consider other educational perspectives. In this endeavor, I recommend the following books and articles that might be helpful in your role. They are:

  • The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
  • Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol
  • Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks
  • Decultralization and the Struggle for Equality by Joel Spring
  • Lies my Teacher Told Me by James Loewen
  • The Peoples History of the Unites States by Howard Zinn
  • Any of the writings of James Baldwin

And finally, in order to have a better understanding of intersectionality, I recommend the newly released documentary about Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro.”

Sincerely,
Cynthia Greer, PH.D., Associate Professor of Education and Counseling
Director of the M.ED in Curriculum and Education – Educating for Change program

Dr. Mary Lynn Rampolla, Associate Professor of History:

“Dear Ms. DeVos,

“Your assertion that university professors tell students “what to think” couldn’t be farther from the truth and reflects an uninformed and deeply flawed understanding of the goals and methods of higher education.

“I do not tell my students what to think, but, rather, I try to teach them how to think:  critically, clearly, and logically.  In a classroom, this translates into two expectations:

“1) When they are making an argument, verbally or in writing, I expect them to have evidence to support their assertions.  I expect them to examine multiple sources written from different points of view.  I expect them to have carefully weighed any information that would contradict their assertions, and have good reasons to consider the evidence that backs their thesis more convincing.

“2)  When considering assertions made by other people — in scholarly books and articles, on websites and in the media, in lectures and class presentations — I expect them to assess those arguments critically.  I expect them to question the authority of the source, root out its biases, and examine the evidence that is presented.  I expect them to demand evidence that is credible and sufficient.  And when I tell them to question the authority of a source, that includes me.  My greatest sense of success as a professor comes when one of my students says, “Dr. Rampolla, I’m not sure that I agree with your interpretation of that source,” and can provide evidence to support her alternative viewpoint.

“More often than not, when I assign a paper, it includes the instruction:  “There is no single correct answer to this question.  What I’m looking for, and what you will be graded on, is your ability to use the evidence presented by the sources to support your thesis.” This, despite the fact that more often than not, students would prefer that I just “tell them the answer.”  When I mentioned this practice on my Facebook page last night, a former student from the class of 2008 commented, “Not going to lie, that used to drive me crazy, but I learned how to actually look at multiple sides of an argument because of it.”  I told her that her comment had made my day.  And it did.”

Dr. Cynthia DeBoy, Associate Professor of Biology:  “DeVos’s statement is full of hypocrisy and a lack of an understanding of what college is all about. Our goal as college educators is to teach students to analyze information to make their own informed decisions about issues. We teach students to think critically about issues and apply information to solve problems, rather than tell them what to think. We guide students to develop skills to critically think about statements made by leaders or experts and to make their own educated decisions about whether such statements are valid or applicable.  Critical thinkers, such as those we foster through college education are likely to be considered a threat to the current administration because thinkers do not accept a statement as truth simply because it is stated by leaders. Furthermore, thinkers develop communication skills to speak out or write in opposition to statements they determine to be incorrect. In these ways, critical thinkers are doing exactly what the First amendment protects. College education teaches students to think, question, discuss, oppose and learn. It is not college educators, but rather the war against the media that the current administration has provoked that is a threat to the 1st Amendment.”

Dr. Roberta Goldberg, Professor of Sociology:  “The statement from the Secretary of Education is an insult to dedicated college faculty who take seriously their commitment to provide tools to  students to enable them to think critically in a complicated world.  As the world gets smaller and the pace of life faster it is more important than ever to have these tools to sustain democracy and progress through the 21st Century.”

Dr. Lynda C. Jackson, Assistant Professor of Business:  “As a leader in many capacities prior to joining the ranks of the distinguished faculty at Trinity, I am now living my passion–watching my young students develop and grow toward becoming successful women leaders.  My primary responsibility is to guide students’ learning to be effective and efficient leaders, think ethically, and express their own important and diverse opinions.  Yet, more than anything, my job is to help our students develop leadership skills based on a foundation of critical thinking and deep curiosity.   Why?  Because with the development of critical thinking, intellect evolves and urges them to question all views presented to them in person or in print.  The best leadership decisions are often made after a session of critical thinking.  But how can you develop critical thinking in an environment that squashes that thought process?  You can’t!  My classroom discussions include free expression of as many opinions as there are students present.  With the advantage of our enrollment of a highly diverse student population, nothing is more rewarding than to listen to students freely toss out a myriad of thoughts and ideas on any topic. I am highly impressed when they question something I’ve said!  How backwards would it be to consider controlling and limiting those voices, and then expect them to become effective leaders?  Education focuses upon opening young minds to stop and think about whatever is presented to them in all environments.  At Trinity that’s exactly what we do.  Moreover, we consistently encourage open discourse, because it is that mode of teaching and learning that truly develops students’ potential to become the world’s greatest future leaders!  We develop free thinking leaders!”

Ms. Wendy Bilen, Assistant Professor of English:As a writing professor, I regularly receive student papers that highlight viewpoints with which I disagree. Instead of knocking down positions, I teach students how to strengthen their claims. I state repeatedly that students may argue whatever they like as long as they can build a clear, substantive, and credible case. We discuss the power of language, the importance of considering and respecting various perspectives, and the necessity of using solid evidence as support. We consider matters of integrity. I could go on. The upshot is this: I am doing the hard work of equipping students, not dogmatizing them, and I can give you a long list of others who are doing the same.”

Dr. Rebecca Easby, Associate Professor of Art History:Within the scholarly community many disagree about a variety of issues. If a position is well supported by evidence then it is valid. For example, in art history, no one can know for sure what was in the mind of artist who painted 500 years ago. We can use what evidence we have to formulate a theory, but sometimes different scholars formulate different theories using the same evidence. This is the nature of scholarly debate.  This is also what I try to teach my students. I do have not problem with a student having an opinion that is different from my own, but I do have an issue when an opinion is given without proper consideration of the available evidence. This concept applies both to art history and politics.”

Dr. Stacey Baugh, Associate Professor of Psychology:  “I personally don’t tell any student what to think.  I encourage them to think critically about issues by examining EVIDENCE and not only about the anecdotal kind either.  I don’t care what a student’s stance is on any topic as long as her conclusions are well thought-out and reasoned.”

Dr. Matthew Bates, Assistant Professor of Communication:The Political Right whips up support by inventing attacks and making people feel like victims, to wit, the so-called “War on Christmas,” “Assaults on the Second Amendment,” or “Immigrants are criminals, stealing our jobs.'” To have the Secretary of Education target college and university campuses in this way is certainly disturbing and we need to keep a close eye on that, but her remarks are part and parcel of their preferred method of operations.   In my classes, I’ll critique anyone — Political Left, Center, or Right — whose public pronouncements exemplify sloppy thinking, hyperbole, fear-mongering, and so forth. If the Trump administration continues to provide me with such a wealth of excellent “bad examples,” that’s on them, not on me!”

Dr. Roxana Moayedi, Professor of Sociology: “I do not teach my students what to think and how to act but I do teach them that thoughts and actions are shaped by social  locations such as education, occupation income, race and ethnicity,and age.  I do not teach them what to think but I teach them theory and social scientific research and hope they develop sociological imagination. I don’t teach them what to say, but I teach them how to support their opinion by social science data.”

Adjunct Professor, Anthropology and Writing: I studied to become a language and writing teacher because I want to empower everyone, regardless of whether their views and my own are the same, to share her or his ideas. My job is to teach our students how to craft evidence-based arguments using the best available research on any given subject. In my career, I’ve worked at several Research 1 Universities (hopefully the Secretary knows what those are), and I’ve helped students write papers that are directly opposed to my own personal and spiritual beliefs about a particular topic. My one requirement is that those projects be based on evidence, that they address the underlying assumptions the writer might have head on, and that they respond to opposing viewpoints. I think that kind of balanced, critical thinking is necessary to a functioning and diverse democracy.

“To echo other colleagues on this thread, I teach my students how to make themselves think harder and help them develop the tools that they need to express their thoughts, no matter what those thoughts might be. I have never, in my 7 year career as a college teacher, pushed my views on a student. I have never thought ill of a student for having different views from myself, and I have seen the power of writing/rhetoric classes to change lives, urge students to see their voices and ideas as valuable, and have even seen students completely change their views on a subject after receiving better factual information.

“My class is not a post-fact or alternative-fact zone. It is also not an ideological space where I push any sort of agenda other than giving students the tools they’ll need to research any question their heart desires. I also ask my students to push back, tell me what about our power dynamics they’d like to change, right up front. We read “The Banking Concept of Education” from Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed within the first two weeks of class to invite students to feel empowered to shape and lead our classroom dynamics.

“Our Education Secretary, and many others in our new cabinet, seem to think that educators (and public professionals in general) want to maintain an elitist status quo.  There are many problems with this. First, they don’t understand that every day, on the front lines of education (in the classroom where it matters), we are helping our students build the tools they need to create meaningful change, and helping them intervene in an academic environment that has historically excluded certain individuals from attending and participating based on race, gender, and class. We are helping to intervene in the ivory tower model of education.  We should be on the same team in this regard. I show my students a behind the scenes look, for example of what it takes to publish an article in academia. I show them that writing is always messy, and multi-draft. My goal is to help them feel comfortable seeing expert academics as average human beings, and invite them to be a part of the scholarly conversation.

“For example, in Florida, I’ve worked with student farmers to write research articles about animal agriculture for undergraduate journals. I don’t even eat meat. Those students expressed to me that they never felt like anything they had to say was “interesting” or “important”; I put in the extra hours on this initiative to help show them that wasn’t the case by demonstrating that all quality, fact-driven research on a topic is created equal, and that research writing is a skill you can practice just like any other. I’ve worked at Trinity for just under a year, and I can honestly say I’ve never met a more dedicated group of educators. I’ve also never worked in an environment so invested in students’ OWN personal religious, intellectual, and political growth–whatever path that might be.”

Mr. V.R. Nemani, Associate Professor of Business:  “The secretary’s statement to college students that “the faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think” would have been accurate if ‘what’ is replaced by ‘how’.  Students at universities and colleges learn how to realize their dreams, how to form and eloquently express their ideas, and how to think and evaluate ideas including those of demagogues who aspire to grab power by fear-mongering through lies and challenging proven scientific facts.”

Dr. Shizuka Hsieh, Associate Professor of Chemistry: “I credit Episcopalian Presiding Bishop Curry’s election video for putting things in the context of playground rules: First Amendment Rights and discussion of disagreeing opinions are essential to our pursuit of truth and understanding. Our shared commitment to seek truth also requires agreement on the ground rules for that dialogue and discussion. The ground rules in college are the rules taught in elementary school and kindergarden. (1) No lying. Discussion is based on facts. Made-up information is not valid evidence. (2) No cheating. We accept ideas after considering all of the valid evidence, and agree to honor ideas with the strongest evidence. Just as kids put down cards in a game when the rules say to do so, we agree to put aside ideas that have strong evidence against them. (3) No bullying. Meanness and calling people names are not valid ways to influence the discussion. Our job is to facilitate the pursuit of truth and understanding through dialogue that follows these simple ground rules. Telling students what to think goes counter to our vocation and to what teachers do everyday…My favorite moment in teaching here still is when an organic chemistry student told me she didn’t like my explanation and proceeded to tell me why, in addition to providing a plausible alternate way of approaching the problem. That is precisely the kind of thinking we aim to instill in our students.”

Dr. Joseph E. Jensen, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies:  “In my teaching my primary objective is always to get students to question, to think and read critically. I have never had a student object that I was telling her what to think. And I am most reluctant to give answers. I believe education is about giving students the tools for coming up with their own answers. I stress with my students in every class the importance of living with unanswered questions. Wait for the answers to come. Unanswered question are not bad or dangerous. The real danger is unquestioned answers. And I expect and want my students to question and challenge anything coming from me that they disagree with.”

Dr. Angela Harris, Adjunct Professor:  “I find the language “the fight against the education establishment” divisive. It does not promote efficacy in our discourse around effective solutions for education.  The suggestion that our higher education system works to produce homogeneous thinkers is simply absurd and lacks evidence.  Our nation is in no way lacking diversity in opinions and spirited debates around any subject. The political discourse on display during any given Sunday talk show or news network serves as evidence that we have been educated as a society of individual thinkers.  Critical thinking is the cornerstone of every subject in my classroom. It doesn’t matter if students agree with the opinion of a peer or me. Students are held accountable to demonstrate critical thinking based on facts, logic, and research. They are taught to apply critical thinking to the basic three part structure of an argument: (1) issues, (2) reasons, and (3) conclusions.  Students are taught that the First Amendment protects our right to freedom of speech against or in support of the government. Our democracy is stronger because political speech is the least regulated and restricted under the First Amendment.  As a government actor overseeing education, Ms. DeVos has a greater responsibility to ensure that students continue to have freedom in speech and opinion, even if it is overwhelmingly not in support of her political view. Her posture demonstrates that she is in fact the threat to silencing the rights of others. Blaming educators and declaring war on those who teach and advocate for the most diverse student population in the world is not the answer. Educators should be considered miracle worker and problem solvers – not the problem.”

An Associate Professor: “I do not believe that any faculty member at Trinity, or in the majority of institutes of higher education, has any interest in telling students what to think, on the contrary we strive always to teach student how to think critical and thoughtfully for themselves and this means forming their own opinions. As a social scientist with particular training in research methodology and statistics, I prize above all else the use of facts and research to inform and support these opinions, but the content and quality of the opinion is, and should always be, up to the student. Some of the best papers that I have read are ones whose position I disagree with but which argues that position carefully, thoughtfully, and with supporting evidence.”

Dr. Cristina Parsons, Associate Professor of Economics: “I would tell her that I see my job as teaching my students HOW to think, not WHAT to think. I disclose from the start of every semester that I teach Market Economics or Capitalist Economics, and that my positionality is such that in my class, market outcomes are superior to government interference in nearly every instance, except those that are acceptable to EVERY economist in the western world, even those trained at the University of Chicago (one to whom, by the way, I am married).  I would tell her that Adam Smith himself would question her instinct to privatize the educational system in the U.S. Over 200 years ago, he reasoned that the public sector had the responsibility of teaching all individuals, both young and old. I would give her two Smith quotes, the first on the responsibility of the public sector for the education of the young (and on the implicit equalizing role it serves in society),and the second on the importance of adult/continuing education, particularly in a society in which, as Smith puts it, the consequence of confining workers to a “few very simple operations” renders them “stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”

[below are Dr. Parsons’ quotes from Adam Smith]

  • “But though the common people cannot, in any civilized society, be so well instructed as people of some rank and fortune, the most essential parts of education, however, to read, write, and account, can be acquired at so early a period of life that the greater part even of those who are to be bred to the lowest occupations have time to acquire them before they can be employed in those occupations. For a very small expence the public can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education.”
  • “In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two…The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”

Mr. Joseph Sheridan, Mathematics Specialist: “We do not – under any circumstances tell students what to think.

“Oh my goodness how could we do that!? They are stubborn, that are feisty, and they are very independent, they are very determined and they have a mind of their own.   And above all they are our future.

“We teach them how (in math) to look at facts (numeracy) and how using basic principles of math and logic they can arrive at a conclusion.  And we show them how they can support that conclusion.”

All faculty and students are welcome to join the conversation!  Email me your comments at president@trinitydc.edu or add comments below…

Follow me on Twitter @TrinityPrez

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2 Responses to Voices of Trinity: Trinity Faculty Respond to Secretary DeVos

  1. This collection of Professors’ comments regarding De Vos’s comments are overwhelmingly inspiring. I continue to support and be proud of Trinity’s participation in resisting what some would like to think is “the new normal.” Hogwash – I say as a Carolina resident and a class member of ’64.

  2. Emily M. Herbst, '76 says:

    Mary Lynn Rampolla is asking no more of her students than she demanded of herself as a student. We had many discussions while students at Trinity concerning the validity of source materials, their interpretation by others, and where the truth might lie. She is first and foremost a scholar. She deserves our respect.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: president@trinitydc.edu