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No threat to free thought

Faculty want to teach students how to think, not what to think

By A Contributor

Mike Hankins
Contributing Writer

Last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), some statements were made about my colleagues and me. I am an instructor in history at Kansas State University, and many of my friends are college instructors, adjunct instructors or professors of various ranks at institutions all across the country. Each of us — my entire profession — was just slandered by leadership figures in the Executive Branch and the Republican Party. As someone who has been a Republican for most of my life, I find this attack to be shocking and unwarranted, but mostly ignorant. And since combating ignorance is my full-time job, allow me to educate these leaders about what higher education is actually like.

Betsy DeVos, the secretary of Education, claimed that in public universities and higher education institutions across the country, “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.”

This is absurd, facetious, and insulting, both to instructors and students.

My classes — and those of my colleagues around the country — are based on the foundation of critical thinking, source evaluation and the free exchange of ideas using evidence-based reasoning. I take great care in my classes to not push any sort of agenda regarding politics or religion. I just encourage logic, reason and evidence-based analysis.

Not once have I encouraged a student to vote for a particular candidate or political party. I have never stated in class who I voted for or supported. I have never told students that they were to do, say, or think any particular political thing. To insinuate otherwise assumes that I am so petty as to reduce my academic responsibilities to pushing an agenda.

My goal is to teach students about history. I want them to leave my classes having learned new information about the past, having learned how to contextualize the present within the broader scope of history, having learned new ways of thinking critically about sources of information and having learned how to use evidence and logic to argue and defend their stances — regardless of what those stances are.

I make it as clear as I can that I never want students to feel that they have to agree with me. I purposefully try to avoid expressing my own opinions and beliefs (although I am a human being and those opinions might show themselves on occasion). Some of my best students have been those who disagreed with me but expressed their views well using evidence and well-reasoned arguments.

Furthermore, I am not an anomaly. Everything I just stated about myself is true for the many dozens of colleagues I know around the country. In all of my years of attending college courses — which now include one bachelor’s degree and two graduate degrees, working with dozens of professors in a wide variety of fields — I can only recall two instructors who ever openly expressed their political views in class. And neither of them encouraged students to vote a particular way. Also, neither treated me or graded me any differently when I expressed alternate views.

Despite what Secretary DeVos wants Americans to believe, we are not at war in the classroom. There is no plot among college professors to try to silence anyone’s voice; there is no scheme to poison the minds of the youth or attack freedom of speech. We value it. Our entire profession is based on sharing ideas, arguing about our ideas, defending our ideas using evidence, challenging other ideas not out of malice but out of rational evidence- based thinking for the sake of furthering our own understanding. And even if some lone professor somewhere were to try to push an agenda in a classroom, most college students are intelligent enough to think critically about what they hear and accept or reject such arguments on their merits.

College instructors are not a threat to free thought and free speech. Statements and attitudes like those expressed at CPAC are the true threat to free thought and free speech. The claim that there is a war between educators and students creates a volatile atmosphere where the exchange and debate of ideas is severely limited. Anyone who values education, freedom of thought and freedom of speech should see Secretary DeVos’s views for what they are: falsehoods rooted in ignorance.

Mike Hankins, 2611 Players Circle, No, 41, is a college history instructor . His views expressed here do not reflect the official opinion of Kansas State University or any other institution.

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