People concerned about liberal political correctness on college campuses have a powerful ally: President Obama.
At a town hall here on college affordability on Monday afternoon, one student asked Obama to respond to Republican presidential contender Ben Carson’s proposal to cut off funding to colleges that demonstrate political bias.
Unsurprisingly, Obama didn’t like it much. “I have no idea what that means, and I suspect he doesn’t either,” he said, then continued: “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 person would be — they wouldn’t get funding, runs contrary to everything we believe about education,” he said. “That might work in the Soviet Union, but that doesn’t work here. That’s not who we are.”
After that criticism, he went on to give his opinion about what’s been called the “new political correctness” on college campuses:
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’ve heard 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. I gotta 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 view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. 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.
The word Obama chose is telling. The idea that college students are demanding to be “coddled” comes up frequently in debates about how much colleges should accommodate requests from students for trigger warnings on syllabuses, for example, or how they should respond to criticisms of graduation speakers or even comedy shows. A recent Atlantic article on the phenomenon was headlined “The Coddling of the American Mind.”
Obama has clearly followed those debates, and seems to side with critics who think students are asking colleges to go too far. But he was also making a broader point, one he returned to repeatedly, about the purpose of college itself.
How Obama argued for a well-rounded education
Obama started his response to the Carson question with an argument about what college is for: “The purpose of college is not just … to transmit skills,” he said. “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.”
This seemed like an implicit response to a frequent criticism of the administration’s higher education policy: that it defines the purpose of college too narrowly, and seeks to evaluate colleges and hold them accountable based on metrics that don’t show the full picture.
Those criticisms were particularly prominent this weekend, after the White House released a new version of its College Scorecard, a search engine for colleges that displays a range of federal statistics. For the first time, prospective students, families, policymakers, families, and others are able to search colleges and find, among other information, how much money their students earn 10 years after they first enrolled.
The scorecard includes plenty of other information as well, including students’ loan payments, their average debt, and the price students from different income quintiles will pay. But the earnings data has been the most controversial part, with Obama accused of reducing the value of college to a number that colleges themselves can’t fully control.
At the Monday town hall, he defended the accountability approach in part, including in response to a question about the struggles of historically black colleges. “There are some of those schools, just like non-historically black colleges and universities, who take in a lot of students but don’t always graduate their students, and those students end up being stuck with debt and it’s not a good deal for them,” he said.
But repeatedly during the forum, which was nominally about college costs, Obama returned to a central point: the value of education, at both K-12 and the college level, to create a well-rounded person.
“Because there was this space where you could interact with people who didn’t agree with you and had different backgrounds from you … I started testing my own assumptions, and sometimes I changed my mind,” he said. “Sometimes I realized, maybe I’ve been too narrow-minded; maybe I didn’t take this into account; maybe I should see this person’s perspective. That’s what college, in part, is all about.”