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Trusteeship Magazine

Education, or Political Theater?

By Jay Heiler

Protest, unrest, and occasional tumult have been standing features of American college life for a half-century, if not longer. Astonished reactions to the recent activity roiling campuses around the country might therefore be considered overwrought.

Yet, something about these events struck a great many people, both inside and outside academia, as different.

One might long for simpler times. A little rebellion now and then is well and good, as Mr. Jefferson observed to Mr. Madison a few decades before founding his historic university. Somehow, college would not be college without the occasional pushback at The Man. However, when an undergraduate is observed in a public gathering (and captured on soon-to-be-viral video) wantonly screaming vulgarisms at a faculty member, it seems that the era of the speech code has come to a rather incongruous turn.

Such students are ill-served if not required by the university to apologize before returning to classes. For several reasons, this is not a form of behavior that institutions of learning—at any level—ought to countenance. In the first place, it is degrading to the student. If left unaddressed, moreover, it suggests to all students that such conduct is constructive when in fact it will only bring them to professional and perhaps personal loss, and soon. That is, unless, one plans to make an academic career of historical grievance, which, alas, may be exactly the point.

Of course, this perspective involves a construct which is now, at least for the urgent purposes of the present election cycle, passé. Historically, college has been a wonderful place where one, if fortunate and diligent enough, went to grow up. Now, it is apparently to be the place where one goes to avoid doing so.

Upon reading of these events, most board members may have simply felt gratitude that they didn’t happen on their campuses, or felt that they could not have so happened, but that may be misplaced credulity. They are just as prone to happen one place as another, because whatever the honest passion of the students, at some point and on some level, such things can be contrived and choreographed as political theater.

Therein lies the real cost involved. Along with the acquisition of knowledge and the development of the intellect, a college or university environment ought to advance formation of the whole person, in character, temperament, and, if one is so inclined, soul.

Only in the modern era has this understanding of education and the university been thrown off, replaced by an advancing utilitarianism that reduces education to “workforce development,” and college life thereby to a transactional engagement of shekels-for-sheepskin, cash-for-credential. This may all sound wonderful at economic development seminars or fervent funding pitches to public appropriators, but it turns out to be the intellectual and moral “space,” and it’s surely not a safe one, into which virtually any content is poured, no matter how toxic or absurdly politicized or disconnected from the authentic mission of a university.

To call this recasting of higher education anti-intellectual may be the most politically and academically acceptable critique, but it actually rates as worse. On a philosophical level, it is dehumanizing, and on a practical level, it is hazardous to higher education and especially to state colleges and universities, which owe their students and their taxpaying investors something more substantial.

Higher education is going through significant and essential change in model and modality, but amid all this change, it would do well to return to its ancient and deeply noble roots. These roots obviously have little to do with politics and turn-out models, the burning controversies of the day, or the let’s-you-and-him-fight business ethos of the modern media complex. They involve, instead, the love of teachers for students, the search for truth and discovery from age to age, and the formation of great men and women who will realize the highest of human capacity and aspirations. We can throw that off if we so will, but nothing will serve better in its place.



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