President Obama strongly endorsed Heterodox Academy last week. OK, he didn’t mention our site by name, but he endorsed our mission explicitly. At a forum on college access and affordability, in Des Moines, Iowa, a high school student asked him about Ben Carson’s proposal that government cut funding for “politically biased colleges.” This gave the President an opportunity to talk about recent trends on college campuses, and how intellectual and political diversity in his own college days broadened his mind. (See coverage at Vox, and the Washington Post.)
His whole response is a beautiful statement on the value of a liberal arts education for creating more thoughtful and open-minded citizens. He affirms that students must be exposed to political diversity to help them test their assumptions and come to understand their fellow citizens. Here is the relevant section, in its entirety, copied from the White House transcript of the entire session. (I have bolded the most relevant passages, but have done no other editing):
Look, the purpose of college is not just, as I said before, to transmit skills. It’s also to widen your horizons; to make you a better citizen; to help you to evaluate information; to help you make your way through the world; to help you be more creative. The way to do that is to create a space where a lot of ideas are presented and collide, and people are having arguments, and people are testing each other’s theories, and over time, people learn from each other, because they’re getting out of their own narrow point of view and having a broader point of view.
Arne, I’m sure, has the same experience that I did, which is when I went to college, suddenly there were some folks who didn’t think at all like me. And if I had an opinion about something, they’d look at me and say, well, that’s stupid. And then they’d describe how they saw the world. And they might have had a different sense of politics, or they might have a different view about poverty, or they might have a different perspective on race, and sometimes their views would be infuriating to me. But it was because there was this space where you could interact with people who didn’t agree with you and had different backgrounds that I then started testing my own assumptions. And sometimes I changed my mind. Sometimes I realized, you know what, maybe I’ve been too narrow-minded. Maybe I didn’t take this into account. Maybe I should see this person’s perspective.
So that’s what college, in part, is all about. The idea that you’d have somebody in government making a decision about what you should think ahead of time or what you should be taught, and if it’s not the right thought or idea or perspective or philosophy, that that person would be — that they wouldn’t get funding runs contrary to everything we believe about education. (Applause.) I mean, I guess that might work in the Soviet Union, but it doesn’t work here. That’s not who we are. That’s not what we’re about.
Now, one thing I do want to point out is it’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem. Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side. And that’s a problem, too.
I was just talking to a friend of mine about this. I’ve heard I’ve of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative. Or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African Americans, or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. And I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of views. (Applause.)
I think that you should be able to — anybody should — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say. That’s not the way we learn, either.
What do you think, Arne?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Amen.
You can watch the whole interaction here. Drag the slider to 1:22:32