Lesley Stahl: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: I have not — I have not — I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming. — “60 Minutes” interview, March 11, 2018
Lesley Stahl: Have you ever seen a school?
Betsy DeVos: A school? I have — well, I hesitate to say a school. We, of course, know a school is not a building, nor is it a bus — unless it’s a bus? I’m pretty sure it’s not a bus. Although one can certainly learn on a bus. Indeed, that unconventional instructor with red hair who boldly threw away the lesson plan often taught on a bus. Indeed any place that learning occurs for a student, that, I would say, is a school.
Maybe the real school is life.
No, I’m sorry, Lesley, you must think I am an idiot. Of course this is a trick question: Schools do not exist. The real school is inside all of us.
Stahl: I thought this was going to be an easy question, but now I’m genuinely concerned. Have you never seen a school?
DeVos: I am hesitant to say I’ve SEEN a school, Lesley, because I know I’ve seen students. I think what I have seen is a group of students performing well or badly in isolation from one another in a kind of a building where they all stayed for the course of the day and gathered to hear different adults address them. Is that what you’re referring to? That entirely unconnected group of people?
Oh! No, wait, Lesley, I apologize.
I know what a school is.
Ha, this is embarrassing.
A school is a wonderful feature of the natural landscape of America of which we should be justly proud. Many communities have them, and it is easy to help them thrive. The sheer array of colors! The scales are just beautiful. The fins. The way they all move in concert together as though guided by an invisible force. It’s like an underwater ballet, Lesley. Schools create possibilities. Such as, for instance: They found Nemo, Lesley. That was a great achievement of a school.
Stahl: That is fish.
DeVos: I can’t tell if you’re joking or tricking me.
Stahl: You’re the secretary of education.
DeVos: I am in charge of arming the schools, I know that. Whatever they are. We are going to make certain teachers have the options to have guns, and also that students who do not have the option to go to a good school have the option to — have options. Oh my gosh, Lesley, I apologize. I remember now. That thing when you are nearly asleep when you feel suddenly as though you are falling, that momentary sensation that jolts you awake: That is a school.
No? I know it is not a tree. Or, of course, a mineral. Is it alive?
Ha ha, Lesley, do not answer; I know what a school is! I am just using a rhetorical technique!
A school is like a spa for the very poor? Like if you had a tutor to teach your students but there were a lot of students and you felt weird inviting the instructor to stay for tea sandwiches afterward?
Don’t answer, Lesley, I have it!
A school is a few feet out from shore with a big light on it and it helps prevent shipwrecks. A school is that feeling when you want to remember a word and it doesn’t come to you until hours later, maybe weeks later. A school is — they give everyone a little white ball and then you hit it with a silver stick, and it builds character.
Stahl: Please just Google “school,” Betsy. This is painful.
DeVos: I think a school is a tie store. People who have been to schools together, they always say they have ties. You go there, and you get a big shirt that says your name and the year and some ties and when you wear them later in life people nod at you — Oh, oh! Is a school where Robin Williams tore up the book and they all got up on the desks? Or is a school where Robin Williams honked his nose? I know Robin Williams was in a movie about a school.
Stahl: Please just Google this.
DeVos: Well, I was basically right.
Stahl: Have you intentionally visited any schools?
DeVos: I have not intentionally done anything.
Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.