Opinion: Campus protests and Common Core

It’s bad enough that college students today have to juggle academic and social pressures while paying historically high tuition rates that often saddle them with years of debt. But now they’re struggling to retain their First Amendment rights.

We’ve seen this all across the country: Students at Yale University last year made headlines when they protested, of all things, a panel emphasizing the importance of free speech. As made obvious by the glaring contradiction here – that students were using their right to free speech to limit speech they did not like – there is a particularly troubling mindset at work today. Campus protests are nothing new, but lately they have taken on a more belligerent nature that diminishes the voice of the individual.

Melissa Click, the former University of Missouri communications professor who was caught on tape asking for “muscle” to physically remove a student documenting a protest, represents how peaceful demonstrations coupled with a powerful aversion to intellectual debate can turn into mob rule.

Students at California State University recently tried to physically block other students from attending a speech by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who eventually needed to be escorted off campus by police due to safety concerns.

This shouldn’t disturb only conservatives. Even President Barack Obama has expressed dismay at the trend, saying at a 2015 town hall meeting in Des Moines, Iowa: “I don’t agree that you—when you become students at colleges—have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”

The same groups that advocate for diversity and acceptance on campus will go to great lengths to halt meaningful debate. Conservatives on college campuses today are threatened with disciplinary action if they speak their minds or defend free speech, even when distasteful. Yet the Founding Fathers saw this as a right essential to our freedom—one that should be protected in all places, including college campuses.

The idea that colleges and universities should be teaching courses from a uniform perspective, further constrained by a politically correct vocabulary, is anathema in an intellectually free society. Such circumstances cripple a student’s ability to communicate effectively and thoughtfully weigh differences of opinion with colleagues who do not think exactly like them.

Surely, society has nothing to benefit from a generation of college graduates who are taught that the only acceptable response to ideas with which they disagree is to protest or to seek refuge in a safe space.

Unfortunately, college students are not the only ones who are increasingly made to think inside the box. When states adopted the Common Core national standards, parents, teachers and administrators alike became concerned about the impact a uniform set of standards might have on different school curricula throughout the country. Public education already has numerous constraints that box students in, failing to provide options for the diverse intellectual needs, priorities and values of American families.

Defenders of Common Core often argue that these standards are not a curriculum. They add that states had the option to adopt Common Core and that it is not a federally mandated program. Much like the Mizzou student who went on a hunger strike until school president Tim Wolfe was fired, the federal government made its request difficult to ignore.

With the heavy financial strings tied to Race to the Top funds, and subsequent waivers from No Child Left Behind, states had a very short window of time to figure out if they could afford not to adopt Common Core. Additionally, for states that did adopt the national standards, the federal government’s heavy emphasis on standardized testing makes a Common Core-free curriculum difficult.

Education should be centered on the individual. College, certainly, should be a place where intellectual debate can flourish. Similarly, elementary and high school education should provide opportunities for all learners to come to solve a problem in different ways, thus celebrating students’ unique strengths.

Schools for students of all ages should foster intellectual diversity and strive to create options that enable students to use education to make the best of their unique talents. If not, elementary and secondary schools will retain the failed factory model, further constrained by a top-down curriculum, feeding into a higher education system increasingly devaluing free speech and intellectual curiosity.