DeVos graduation speech in Baltimore draws protest

When Betsy DeVos delivered the commencement address at the University of Baltimore Monday, some students turned their back on her in protest, the Baltimore Sun reports.

In the opinion of several graduates, professors, and former graduates, some of whom intentionally skipped the graduation ceremony in protest, others who turned their back on Ms DeVos and raised their fists in the air during her speech, Ms DeVos’s espousal of school choice initiatives does not reflect the public school values held by the majority of UB students.

“We don’t feel the secretary of education represents the best interests of this college or the students who go to it,” writing professor Marion Winik was quoted as saying.

“Ms DeVos seems to go against the very core of so many of UB’s values and makes our mission statement look to be a mockery,” stated a petition signed by more than 3,000 people in urging the university to rescind the invitation.

But the university’s president, former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L Schmoke, said he wants the university to espouse the ideals of free speech and felt that having the US secretary of education visit the UB campus could serve that mission very well.

“The university stands for freedom of speech,” Mr Schmoke said when he extended the invitation. “My bottom line conclusion is the university stands for debate on controversial issues. I do feel that having the US secretary of education on our campus is something that’s very important for the university, and in the long run, I believe that students will recognize that whether they agree with her position on issues or not.”

Remarks by the US secretary of education

Here is the speech Ms DeVos was expected to deliver at the University of Baltimore winter commencement, according to prepared remarks posted by the US Department of Education:

Thank you, President Schmoke, for that kind introduction. I have admired your work from afar. Your commitment to this city is admirable, and your record of working for your community is impressive. We all can learn from your efforts to make Baltimore “the City that Reads” and from your work to empower parents, particularly those parents of inner-city students. Thank you, President Schmoke, for your clear and courageous leadership.

And thank you for this gracious invitation to be with members of the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland, the University of Baltimore’s board members, its faculty, and, most importantly all of you — its proud graduates.

As I prepared to be with you today, I reflected on my own graduation. Sitting there that day, I never would have imagined one day I’d hold the title of Secretary or of commencement speaker. My public speaking class was not my favorite. And I must say, I’m not always very comfortable being on stage like this.

But there is a title that I’m much more comfortable with: and that is “mom.”

From the moment my first child was born, I knew there would be no greater vocation than to be a parent. I know many – if not, all – parents in this room feel the very same way.

Graduates, even though we are here today to celebrate you and your accomplishments, there are others due some recognition, as well. Your parents, spouses, children, friends, co-workers – and others who propelled and cheered your success – all walked side-by-side with you as you pursued your education here at UB. They supported you, coached you, tutored you and loved you.

Graduates, how about standing and recognizing all those here who have helped make this day possible for you?

Some of you may know that I’ve been working for over 30 years to empower parents. That work hasn’t changed even though my office address has. I came to Washington with this core belief: Those who are closest to students know best how to serve them.

That’s one reason I was so pleased to accept President Schmoke’s invitation to be with you today. UB was established on that same core belief.

Nearly 100 years ago, UB’s founders recognized Baltimore’s workingmen and women needed options geared toward their needs. Since its inception, the University has provided any student access to a great education: working adults, first-generation college goers, career changers, and those who need flexibility outside of a traditional college environment. Offering curriculums customized to trades and classes scheduled around working hours were innovative ideas then, and they still are today. UB’s brand is truly “knowledge that works.”

More institutions could learn from UB’s concerted effort to shape education around what students want and need – not the other way around. Importantly, more institutions could also learn from you, its students.

Your stories are inspiring!

Antieris, who will receive her diploma today, founded the “Be YOU at UB” campaign to tell the stories of her fellow UB students. Her own story is worth telling, as well.

Antieris’s birth mother placed her in a new home. Her adoptive parents knew little about college, but Antieris was determined to be the first in her family to pursue higher education. She began work on an associate’s degree in Philadelphia and wanted to pursue a Bachelor’s, but returned to Baltimore to help her family. By the time she was able to revisit her education, Antieris was in her 30s, but she was undeterred. So, she enrolled in the accelerated Bachelor’s/Master’s degree program at UB.

That’s why Antieris says “it’s never too late” to pursue education. “No one here at UB apologizes for their mistakes. They look ahead to just ‘get this done.’”

Or Shae, another first-generation college student. Shae and her sisters grew up in a tough neighborhood raised by a mother afflicted with addiction. Surrounded by bad influences, Shae refused to follow her mother’s path. She enrolled at UB to show her younger sisters that “success is possible no matter where you come from.” For Shae, earning her degree opens up opportunities to break free of the negativity she grew up around.

I also think of Claudette who began working at UB in the freshman academic advising office. While there, she was inspired to continue her own education as she guided other students. Claudette had been out of school for 13 years and was admittedly “skeptical” about going back.

She was nervous about being in classes with students much younger than herself, but that fear soon disappeared. “What I learned was that some of my classmates were just as nervous as I was,” she said, “and it became easy for me to talk to them and establish relationships.” Those friendships helped Claudette find her passion, and she chose to pursue studies in human services.

Each of these stories reflects something of struggle, challenge, fear – and that’s OK. No student should see those as limitations. Learning is for all people at all stages and all backgrounds. And students should have as many pathways as they have dreams. Learning should mold to meet the needs of students; it should not force them into a mold.

I share these inspiring stories because, if you remember nothing else I say today, remember this: you are a source of inspiration. You are the reason we are working to rethink how our country approaches education.

Because not one of you is an “ordinary” student. And while some may consider your educational journeys “out of the ordinary,” we consider you extraordinary.

You are each unique – truly one of a kind. And if that is the case, then we must admit that a one-size-fits-all approach to education – at any stage — will not work.

We must stop suggesting there is only one, conventional path to success. In fact, there are many avenues to gain what individual students need or want: industry-recognized certificates, stackable credits, credentials and licensures, badges, micro-degrees, apprenticeships, two-year degrees, four-year degrees, advanced degrees…

All of these are valid pursuits. Each should be embraced as such. If it’s the right fit for the student, then it’s the right education. Period. Students are allowed – and should be encouraged — to be unconventional. And no stigma should follow a student’s journey to success.

At the same time, let’s discard the notion that education should end after you cross this stage. Graduation ceremonies like this are called “commencements” for a reason: a diploma is not a finish line. Your learning should be a lifelong pursuit.

This pursuit requires three challenges of character I’m going to posit today: the challenge to be thoughtful, the challenge to be selfless and the challenge to persevere.

The first charge might be a little unexpected given today’s culture of high volume and snap judgments. There is plenty of talking, but I’d suggest there is not nearly enough listening.

You just reached this important moment in your learning journey; your new knowledge and skills help to broaden horizons and confront realities you might not have previously anticipated.

This moment gives rise to a new voice full of ideas. And it comes with an inherent responsibility to be considerate and careful in the exchange of ideas.

Sometimes exchange requires raising your voice above the noise, but more often, it requires embracing the power of silence.

Susan Cain, an attorney, author and introvert, has some common-sense advice that you’ve probably also heard from your mom or grandma: “We have two ears and one mouth, and we should use them proportionally.”

Spend just a few minutes watching cable news and you’ll encounter folks who haven’t followed that advice. On social media and on many college campuses, groups and individuals pit themselves against each other — not to discuss and debate deeply held beliefs or ideas — but to raise decibels, score “got’cha” points or shout down an opponent’s voice.

The natural instinct is to join in the chorus of conflict, to raise your voice louder, to promote your profile and ostracize others. Too many assume that those who are the loudest are leaders and those who stay quiet are followers.

But we will not solve the significant and real problems our country faces if we cannot embrace this paradox of silence.

We will do well to first listen, study, ponder, then speak to genuinely engage those with whom we disagree. Voices that are quiet at first, grow in strength while those who rush to shout are humbled.

In our fast-paced, loud world, it is healthy to develop an interior life, to be silent, to pray, to review and to contemplate. “No matter what mayhem is happening around me,” Susan Cain wrote, “I know I can always turn inward.” This challenge doesn’t take much: a few moments each day to reconsider, to reflect, and to rejuvenate would benefit all of us.

I will admit many in my generation haven’t done a stellar job when it comes to dealing with one another. You have an opportunity to do better. You can lead the way towards a new era of engagement in our country, one where we discern when to be thoughtful and silent and when to speak with strength.

That brings me to a related challenge: to be selfless. This might also come off as counterintuitive in today’s “me-first” culture. But we would do well to recognize that we are — and always will be — greater than the sum of our parts.

I’m inspired by these lines from Scripture: “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor.”

Too many try to invert the Golden Rule. “Don’t do to others what you would not want done to you.” The inversion suggests that if we just look out for ourselves, we’d all be better off.

The real Golden Rule, we know, is a call to action: Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. The challenge to be selfless is to first recognize something bigger than ourselves.

We rightly celebrate what you have accomplished today, but in doing so, we also acknowledge that you didn’t do it only for yourself. You came here to gain skills that will ultimately help others. You came here to set an example of what’s possible for others. You came here to defy expectations and challenge norms imposed by others.

Make no mistake, though: being selfless doesn’t suggest you should become like everyone else. To the contrary! You need to be yourself because there is only one of you, and we need you. We need your talents and your unique perspective.

The degree conferred on you is a celebration of the time, energy and effort you have invested. And of knowledge, experience and skills you have gained.

However, you didn’t invest here at UB just so you could don the stylish regalia and receive a fancy piece of paper, did you? No!

Your time at UB – your work, your experiences and your relationships – laid a foundation for you to seize opportunities. To put your knowledge to work not only for your own benefit but also for the benefit of others.

Yes, it is good to pause today to applaud your success. But after this moment, I am confident you will find supporting the successes and joys of others more rewarding than anything else. In serving others, we always reap more than we sow.

The last challenge I’m going to lay out today – to persevere – may well be the most difficult to actually do. That’s because our culture seems to promote the ideal of a sheltered life, free of hardship. This siren song tempts us to always take the easy road, the path of least resistance.

But real life isn’t like that, is it? Antieris, Shae and Claudette know this. You all know this.

The path of a real and full life is like the path to success. It’s long, gritty and it’s sometimes painful. It requires perseverance, resilience and sacrifice. Those are words we don’t hear often enough.

Angela Duckworth, a psychologist who studies grit, reminds all of us that the science of success is the study of a person’s will to carry on, adapt and improve. She says: “When you don’t come back the next day—when you permanently turn your back on a commitment—your effort plummets to zero. As a consequence,” she wrote “your skills stop improving, and at the same time, you stop producing anything with whatever skills you have.”

Ultimately, she says, “We have to be willing to fail, to be wrong, to start over again with lessons learned.”

Yes, perseverance requires facing up to fears, and steadfast effort applied to doing something worthwhile…regardless of what comes along. Indeed, it’s not always failure we encounter along the way; it’s often glitz and glamour that distracts us. So to persevere means putting off the pleasures — or the pains — of the moment with an eye toward the future.

The test of success isn’t in the difficulties we face, the unforeseen circumstances, or the sudden, sharp turn. No, the test is really in how we respond. The test is in how we persevere. How we keep going.

It can be easy to quit. It can be easy to throw in the towel and hope someone else finds the solution. But what’s easy or appealing is not always what’s wise or prudent.

Your most difficult challenge may have already come and gone, or it may lie just around the corner. There is no way of knowing. But I trust you possess the will and the wisdom to rise to the challenge. To carry on, head held high.

This will to persevere won’t be formed without a certain selflessness that recognizes something bigger than yourself. And it can only be developed in the context of a contemplative life.

These three charges – to be thoughtful, to be selfless, to persevere – will serve you well no matter where you go and what you do. They’ll add contour and texture to the work you do, the family you raise and the life you lead. Embracing them will help you leave your unique imprint on the world.

So too will the power of the knowledge you’ve gained.

So take your university’s motto, “knowledge that works,” seriously. You’ve invested the time and effort to gain knowledge. Now put it to work.

Invent. Create. Build. Transform. Cure. Solve.

No matter what you want to do, now is the time to start doing it.

It has been said that thoughts become words. Words become actions. Actions become habits. Habits become character. And character becomes destiny.

Today marks an opportunity to turn words into action for the sake of your destiny, and of ours.

Congratulations class of 2017! Thank you for the opportunity to share in this special day with you, and I wish you all the best as you embark on the next step of your journey.

Editorial

This is one time where I have to disagree with students. Ms DeVos has become somewhat of a lightning rod over the ideas of corporate privatization efforts for public schools and vouchers. That’s because she supports changes to US law that would make it easier for corporations to earn profits off of educating students.

In supporting or opposing any argument, it is first necessary to understand and internalize the argument. What aspects of privatization or vouchers are worth talking about or could make schools better? Why do so many people like these ideas?

In the world of free speech, many idiots get to talk, and I honestly can’t learn anything about what they want our laws to do based on what they say. Ms DeVos, on the other hand, is a well-spoken, articulate education secretary who has not only the ear of the country but also an ability to spell out the argument in clear and complete terms.

That makes her opinion very valuable in fostering the debate, as Mr Schmoke pointed out. Without a clearly argued position “for” vouchers, we’re never going to be able to argue “against” them to an audience who will listen. Over the past 30 years or so, states and school districts have asked voters a few dozen times about vouchers. They have been resoundingly defeated, shut off by large margins, time and again. Yet the idea keeps coming up.

Only by understanding what the point held by voucher proponents represents will we be able to debate this issue, and Ms DeVos is the best spokesperson yet for that camp. Her heart is in the right place in trying to do what she thinks is best for children in the US, and for that, I applaud her and Mr Schmoke.

Putting this issue to Congress or to the American people is the only way to settle this debate. Vouchers don’t work, and everybody who would vote knows it. Privatization would lead to a reduction, not an increase, in the quality of education for our students. Everybody who would vote also knows that. But without a debate, there is no opportunity to present evidence in a cool, rational way; all we get is a bunch of ideologues yelling at each other. Time to move on, time to vote. Ms DeVos, thank you for your remarks and for your service.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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