An Interview With Yohuru Williams about Betsy DeVos by Mercedes Schneider

By Mercedes Schneider | Originally published on Mercedes Schneider’s EduBlog | 2017 | Follow Mercedes Schneider @deutsch29blog | Photo credit: by Mike Ekern | Syndication made possible through Patreon.

By Mercedes Schneider

Yohuru Williams and I both attended the Fourth Annual Meeting of the Network for Public Education (NPE), held in Oakland, California.

Williams is the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is also a committed, passionate advocate for the preservation of American public education.

Williams gave a powerful keynote speech at NPE on October 14, 2017; once the audio is available, I plan to transcribe and post his speech. Until then, feel free to peruse Williams’ accompanying Power Point presentation.

I also asked Williams to participate in a brief written interview centered on US ed sec Betsy DeVos, whose extreme, right-wing agenda directly threatens sustainability of the traditional, community public school. Below is our complete exchange.

Interview With Yohuru Williams

Schneider: What do you consider the major threat of the placement of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Ed Sec?

Williams: There are essentially two major problems with Betsy DeVos. The first is her overall lack of qualification for the position. The second is her open hostility to public schools. We have never had an Education Secretary in the history of the United States History who has exhibited such hostility toward public schools.

Schneider: What do you perceive to be DeVos’ “Achilles heel”?

Williams: Secretary DeVos’ Achilles heel might very well be her singular focus on school choice as the panacea for what she and other Education Reformers have problematically labeled as a “failing system of education” in America. Her arrogance may very well prove her undoing.

Schneider: Arrogance?

Williams: By arrogance I mean her deep sense of entitlement and privilege and her inability to see beyond her own experience.

Schneider: In your keynote, you pointed out DeVos’ selectively quoting John F. Kennedy (JFK). Please elaborate.

Williams: She chose to selectively quote from JFK at the Kennedy School perhaps to try and make the case that one of the most celebrated Democrats of the 20th Century widely regarded, even if problematically, for his role in advancing Civil Rights for African Americans, would have agreed with her on the role of government in Education. The problem is she failed to read the rest of the statement. In fact, most of what JFK said was a repudiation of the core values of school choice and privatization that DeVos seeks to advance. His words would have supported the young people protesting her speech more than her privatizing schemes.

*Note: Below is the content of Williams’ Power Point slide referencing the JFK speech above:

Every time that we try to lift a problem from our own shoulders, and shift that problem to the hands of the government, to the same extent we are sacrificing the liberties of our people.

Those who make peaceful change impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.

The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.

Today, we need a nation of Minutemen, citizens who are not only prepared to take arms, but citizens who regard the preservation of freedom as the basic purpose of their daily life and who are willing to consciously work and sacrifice for that freedom.

The wave of the future is not the conquest of the world by a single dogmatic creed but the liberation of the diverse energies of free nations and free men.

–John F. Kennedy made this statement in 1950 as a young congressman from Massachusetts.

Interview continued…

Schneider: DeVos delivers speeches in which she sounds like she is constantly campaigning for school choice. Realistically, what audience could she win?

Williams: This is a difficult question. In the short term I think she will win over those who are predisposed to accept the narrative about failing schools and the myth of school choice as the best solution. Once people are exposed to the truth however, I believe that there will be push back. The fear is that this will not come soon enough and the damage will be extensive and difficult to overcome.

Schneider: Is DeVos more of a Republican Party asset or liability? Will they pay for her in 2018?

Williams: Definitely a liability, however I am not sure how much more she can help or hurt the party based on the actions of the President. Public Education, unfortunately remains at the bottom of most people’s priority list in terms of issues, which is and of itself an issue.

Schneider: What is one chief benefit for public education of having Betsy DeVos as US ed sec?

Williams: I love what Diane Ravitch said today. Secretary DeVos has definitely focused attention on everything that is wrong with Corporate Education Reform and people may finally be taking note of the real danger that privatization poses to public education.

People are indeed taking note.

My thanks to Williams for his time and insights.

Calling all teachers and friends of public education:

Connect with like-minded individuals nationwide and be encouraged in the fight. Consider attending NPE’s next annual meeting (specifics TBA).


Yohuru R. Williams is Professor of History and Author of Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights Black Power and Black Panthers in New Haven and contribtuing author to United We Stand Divided We Fall: Opposing Trump’s Agenda – Essays on Protest and Resistance. Paperback book on sale on Amazon, 40% off, $8.95

Related: Garn Press Education Books

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