Home Opinion Greg Blass Greg Blass: Education should stoke, not stifle, free thought and free...

Greg Blass:
Education should stoke, not stifle, free thought and free expression

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Has anyone noticed how we are “educating” our children and young adults? Is there a trend, at the hands of “thought police,” in our schools and colleges that demands attention? What’s happening to freedom of speech, and the basic value of respect? In its place, are our centers of learning, here on the North Fork and all over the country, molding future generations to push away those who have a different point of view, or philosophy, or belief system? And rather than come to grips with adversity, is it their fate to “opt out” of it? What can we do about it? Consider these recent events:

1) As their summer break approaches, over 97,000 students in grades three through eight, in 116 of 124 LI school districts surveyed by Newsday, actually refused to take their English Language Arts tests required by the state. A like number also boycotted their math exams. Many teachers, students and parents dislike such terms as “refused” and “boycotted” to describe their “revolt” against these tests’ subject matter, known as the Common Core curriculum, preferring to describe it as “opting out.”

2) At Wellesley College, six professors recently fired off a letter complaining about speakers with “objectionable beliefs” who “impose upon the liberty of students, staff and faculty at Wellesley.” According to these professors, who sit on Wellesley’s Commission for Ethnicity, Race and Equity, such speakers engage in “bullying of disempowered groups,” citing complaints from “dozens of students” who “tell us they are in distress as a result of a speaker’s words.” To avoid this type of stress, these professors insisted that their commission “serve as a sounding board when hosts consider inviting controversial speakers, to help sponsors think through the various implications of extending an invitation,” or in other words, a free-speech veto power.

3) At Bethune Cookman University in Florida, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos delivered, or tried to deliver, the commencement address. While many students sat and listened, a large number of others screamed threats and threw water bottles and other objects toward the stage. The university president, to his credit, briefly took the microphone and, to no avail, urged those disruptive students to sit down and show “respect and dignity.” A few days later, reacting to his attempted intervention, as well as to his having allowed Devos to speak in the first place, the state chapter of Florida’s NAACP publicly called on the university president to resign.

4) Laura Kipnis, a feminist professor at Northwestern University, found herself vilified for an essay she authored in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Acedeme.” Her fellow professors and students not only disagreed with her writing, but also personally and vehemently attacked her, quickly subjecting her to a series of hearings in their university’s “Title IX Court” with no substantive result, but certainly a chilling effect on others.

The common thread that weaves its corrosive way through all of these episodes is this: by design or by neglect, deliberately or unwittingly, America’s educational system in some respects has morphed into a costly system of babysitting. From grade-school to college, one finds parents, teachers and professors alike who are much engaged in cushioning young people from adversity, with heavy doses of indoctrination. Receiving a grade of “A” fast becomes a basic right. A student’s world is not to be disturbed. As they leave school to embark on life’s journey, is it only economics that compels increasing numbers of young people to live at home with their parents?

There was a time when a basic function of education was to instill a sense of seizing challenges, to excel at critical thinking, and to achieve. As students reached the closing years of high school and on to college, their teachers and professors once taught them to turn their assumptions into questions, and a work ethic to find the answers. Now there are “safe spaces” where college students escape from views that upset them. For years, professors who express conservative views are subjected to a system of blacklisting that rivals the infamous McCarthy era. But liberal thinkers also beware – as with Professor Kipnis – if you digress from the firmly established lines of acceptable thought on campus, things will get ugly.

Consider the Varkey Foundation, dedicated to enhancing education on all levels, who polled over 20,000 young people in “Generation Z” (15 to 21 years old) from 20 countries all over the world on a variety of ethical, personal, community and political issues, with the same questions asked of all. The goal of the survey, the largest and most up-to-date, global survey of generation Z, was to get a sense of what young people think and feel.

At first glance, the Varkey Foundation offered some measure of reassurance in finding 60-percent support for non-violent, free speech among young people in the U.S. This support is the highest among Western nations. But how is it that the other 40 percent either do not support free speech or are not sure? What is that about? Does freedom of speech, a basic and integral part of our heritage as a society, truly have meaning to only a little over half of a generation of Americans?

Here’s a suggestion for teachers, professors, and even parents: each of us can do our share in reviving free speech, freedom of thought and respect. Let our young students thrive on challenges, rather than hide from them as an awkward form of protest. Let’s give them as much intellectually free range as we can to go wherever their young curiosity will take them. Instead of stifling them with indoctrination, let’s return to exposing them to all kinds of thinking, all “schools of thought,” and all manner of debate, discussion and study, with no rules or expectations to conform.

Our educational institutions ought to take careful note of an alarming conclusion from a mental health study of in-person interviews of over 100,000 children, surveyed between 2009 and 2014, published in the respected journal, Translational Psychiatry, finding that depression too often starts as young as age 11, far earlier than expected. By the time they reach age 17, this study tells us that depression is suffered among 13.6 percent of boys and 36.1 percent of girls, and trending worse. Is there a connection? Though the study did not say so, can we reasonably infer at least the possibility that smothering our youngsters with “protection” may actually hurt them?

Young people deserve exposure to a world of exciting as well as tedious challenges, with successes and failures, and all that is both pleasing and upsetting. Return to teaching them how to think and express their thoughts, to open their minds, and to listen with respect. Many of our educators must turn away from building firewalls from any reality except the one they embrace, or they will endow their students with a tragic legacy.

Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg