President Obama on Free Speech and Sensitivity on Campus

The following is a transcript of President Obama’s remarks yesterday at a town hall meeting in Des Plaines, Iowa:

QUESTION: Hi, my name’s Ava. I’m currently a junior at Lincoln High School here on the southside of Des Moines. My question is to you is: I know you don’t want to get involved with the presidential race at the moment, but… A candidate has said that they want to cut government spending to politically biased colleges. And I was wondering if, say, that would hurt the education system for those who depend on that, or would it better the education as a whole?

OBAMA: First of all, I didn’t hear this candidate say that. I have no idea what that means. [Laughter.]

I suspect he doesn’t either. [Laughter; applause.]

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.

So, 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’ve 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 than you, 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, you know, 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, you know, I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who, you know, 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, you know, I gotta tell you that 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. [Applause.] You know, I think that you should be able to—[stammers].

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, you know, my—I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” That’s not the way we learn either.

So, what do you think, Arne?

ARNE DUNCAN: [He responds off-mic.]

OBAMA: He said “Amen.” Alright. Okay.

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