Hats off to Rep. Paul Boyer, chair of the House Committee on Education, for his bold move to announce that he will not hear HB 2120 in his committee. Among other things, the bill would have banned the teaching of “social justice,” required the instruction of “accurate” history, and allowed the attorney general to investigate alleged classroom violations.
No doubt, some will not agree with various offerings and activities of a modern university education. But certainly, students should be afforded the rights to learn about the ideas, cultures and philosophies of the world; to be taught all subjects with academic content, not propaganda; and to be taught to learn without fear of indoctrination.
That has, in fact, been the very purpose of the public university since its creation, now nearly 200 years ago, to allow all individuals to gain greater knowledge and skill in a variety of subjects and contribute to the advancement of the whole of human knowledge through teaching and discovery.
University education was once a privilege, largely limited to the very wealthy and to those who sought to become lawyers, doctors or clergy. With his design of the first public university, Thomas Jefferson expanded the concept of education and the opportunity to learn broadly to include more individuals and more fields of study.
In Jefferson’s time, he spoke of the education of men, particularly white men. From those early ideals has grown one of the most precious privileges of all Americans today — the right to learn at the highest levels.
Public higher education also was created to serve a bigger purpose — to protect liberty.
With his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson, along with his fellow signers, extended the inalienable right of liberty as the ultimate social justice.
His public university, part of a bigger system of public education, was intended to protect the fledgling nation he helped to create. A people governing themselves, Thomas Jefferson argued, needed access to education if they were to safeguard their hard won freedom and defend themselves from tyranny.
“…Whereas it appeareth (sic) that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath shewn (sic), that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large…”
Sadly, there are those today — faculty and students alike — who would not even allow any mention of Thomas Jefferson in our universities due to the offense caused them by his private life. In an implausible irony, some faculty and students at the University of Virginia, the flagship public university founded by Jefferson, suggested the president of the university strike any quotations of Jefferson in university email.
If our public universities are to be foot soldiers of liberty, however, we must resist the urge to regulate the thought, discussion and debate within them, even those efforts that would purport to protect free speech. The U.S. Constitution and existing laws already protect free speech.
Students are better served instead by exposing them to the full expanse of human thought, the thoughts of the saints and of the tyrants, and the thoughts of people whose character falls somewhere between.
Importantly, students also must be subjected to the rigors of critical thinking and the methods of inquiry. From that, they will be well equipped to distinguish for themselves the silly from the seditious, the seedy from the sublime.
To be educated — and to deploy the knowledge gained for the betterment of one’s self and one’s family — is to enjoy the greatest of privileges given to us as Americans.
For freedom’s sake, it is also one of our biggest responsibilities.
— Eileen Klein is president of the Arizona Board of Regents.