I Wanted to Ask Secretary DeVos about College and Heaven

I doubt the words “college” and “heaven” have ever been intertwined in this magazine. (You may recall your college days as halcyon but humanists typically don’t do heaven.)

However, those two words sprang up in early March when President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos held a photo op at a private elementary school in Florida. They were promoting their plan to invest in school vouchers, something they call “school choice.” (According to the evangelical playbook, it’s the good kind of choice. Reproductive freedom is another story.)

“Who are we?” the principal of St. Andrew Catholic School asked when Trump and DeVos entered a classroom.

“We are scholars,” the students

“What are our goals? Where are we going?” the principal asked.

“College and heaven,” said the young students in unison.

And, cut. Clearly the president thought the scene went great. Inviting students to pose with him for photos, Trump said, “Come on kids. We’re going to make you famous.” Just a few days before that visit, during his Joint Sessions speech to Congress, Trump said he would “seek to enrich the mind, and the souls” of American children. Yes, the president is perfectly happy to do business with the religious right (see Mike Kuhlenbeck’s analysis herein). And privatizing education is nothing if not a business move.

DeVos gave the keynote address at an event I attended at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, on March 29. I wanted to ask her about college and heaven, and if she shared those goals for our students. I wanted to ask her how school choice could possibly steer clear of the Establishment Clause given the reality that (according to the National Center for Education) 80 percent of private schools in the United States are sectarian and most of those are Christian. “I’m not a numbers person,” she said with twinkly smile in response to another question—one of just two she took from the audience (and from clearly friendly sources). But we all know the Trump administration is full of numbers people who have made obscene amounts of money off the backs of many ordinary Americans. We have to assume that most decisions they make and policies they promote benefit a select number of powerful business interests and their ideological bedfellows.

Which brings me to the news of April 7. First, Neil Gorsuch was confirmed, bringing the conservative capitalist tilt of the US Supreme Court back into sharp relief. That same day the UN Security Council met to discuss the previous night’s US missile strikes on a Syrian military airfield. Trump ordered the launch in retaliation for the horrific chemical attack just days before on innocent Syrians, an attack their government denied responsibility for. Questions abound: US allies backed the missile retaliation and many felt that at last someone had done something to intervene, but did it really help? Did Bashar Assad’s regime in fact use sarin gas on its people? What now for Trump’s relations with Russia?

“We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world,” Trump said in his April 6 remarks announcing the military action. “We hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will in the end prevail.” He ended not just with “God bless America,” as every president since Nixon has done in such moments, but added “and the entire world.” The tone was worlds away from the “American carnage”/“America First” message Trump usually touts, and may have just been another moment of political theater. Whether or not you reject the idea that a god exists who can do anything about the way we treat each other, we can at the very least praise the wish for all people to live well and pressure our leaders to follow it.