A Uniform Graduating Class

By on December 17, 2010

by Abigail Averill

Imagine an America in which each person agrees completely with his or her neighbor.  Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is peace and quiet, a land without debate.  However, it is debate that has made America such a forward thinking and progressive country over the years.  Friedrich Hegel makes the argument that, throughout history, a distinct pattern of thesis, antithesis, synthesis has shaped not only the formation of ideas and innovations, but of societies and cultures as a whole.  It is the friction between the thesis and its antithesis which creates the synthesis of the future.  In an America with uniform beliefs and ideas, this progression could never take place.  Much of this formation of syntheses has occurred on university campuses-think Berkeley in the Sixties.  However, today, many of these freedoms of expression and even thought are beginning to be repressed, whether through censorship or forced lessons in perceived morality.  These examples and the resulting battles headed by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, are featured in two videos which prove not only that intellectual freedom is necessary to maintain a healthy college campus, but also that students who feel encroached upon have the right to speak out.

In the first of these two videos, "Political Correctness vs. Freedom of Thought-The Keith John Sampson Story," a student and worker’s experience with the censorship practiced by his university, IUPUI, is presented.  Keith John Sampson, the student in question, was found guilty of racial harassment after one of his African American co-workers saw him reading a book entitled Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan.  Though the woman offended by the book only saw the imagery of the KKK, as the video points out, there was a "willful crusading ignorance" about the university’s response to an event which was ultimately a misunderstanding.  Of the many issues with Mr. Sampson’s treatment in the case, the most serious to me is the fact that such an influential verdict was awarded to him without a fair hearing.  When the Affirmative Action Office of the university did interview Mr. Sampson, the woman conducting the interview paid him no attention, even refusing to look through the book which had initially caused the controversy.  Just one small glance would have showed her that the book was in fact not in favor of the KKK, but instead celebrating its defeat.  In addition, the verdict of racial harassment is wholly inappropriate to the case because of the nature of Mr. Sampson’s actions or perhaps non-actions.  According to the Office for Civil Rights in the United States Department of Education, racial harassment is defined as an "environment [which] may be created by oral, written, graphic or physical conduct related to an individual’s race, color, or national origin that is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the recipient’s programs or activities." By this definition, Keith Sampson’s silent reading of a book did not rise to the level of racial harassment-he was in no way limiting the ability of his co-worker to "benefit" from any "programs or activities."  FIRE’s response and the video both show that, though the university’s chancellor officially apologized to Mr. Sampson, the issue may not be wholly resolved.  Not only did the apology come in a very terse form, it was not followed up by any inquiry into the behavior of Marguerite Watkins, the woman from the Affirmative Action Office who refused to give Mr. Sampson’s side of the story any thought before handing out her verdict.  IUPUI also has the book in question in its library, thus making the verdict against Mr. Sampson all the more hypocritical.  A university is meant to be a place of learning, including learning about controversial issues.  All that Mr. Sampson was doing by reading his book was educating himself on a historical subject.  By attempting to censor the books which Mr. Sampson, or any other student for that matter, might read, a university loses one of its fundamental values to society-to allow students to form their own opinions about past events and make informed decisions to shape the future.

In the second video, "Think What We Think Or Else: Thought Control on the American Campus," a University of Delaware program which aimed to wipe out dissenting opinions and beliefs among students is examined.  In this case, just as in Mr. Sampson’s, free minds, the pinnacle of American university education, are impeded by university policy.  At the University of Delaware, an orientation program structured very differently from those at other universities across the country aimed "not to orient but to indoctrinate" as the video points out.  As a large state university, Delaware has a racially and intellectually diverse student population-a feature which one would think the university would want to uphold.  However, the orientation program in question sought to homogenize the ideas and thoughts held by the students, thus decreasing the ideological diversity on campus.  Through the views of professors and students who experienced the program, specific examples generate images of what could perhaps have been a good idea gone too far.  Though introducing the various difficulties and differences between people could have been enriching in a supplemental program, this mandatory one presented the biases of the founders as the only correct beliefs and worldviews.  As one professor points out in the video, the program introduced discussion only when it was already based on a pre-formed concept that America is an oppressive society, instead of allowing students to reach that conclusion, or a different one, on their own.  In addition, the timing of the program could not have been worse.  Orientation is meant to aid students in the process of becoming comfortable in an unfamiliar environment, not to force them to reveal intimate details through invasive questions about their political views or sexual orientation. Diversity of thought should be celebrated on a college campus, and a program which, as one professor put it, has a long-term effect of "teach[ing] conformity," has no place in one of America’s prominent universities.

In both of these cases, free speech and free thought were censored on the very university campuses where they should be fostered.  Open discussion allows students to create more fully formed and individual opinions on the most pressing issues of the time.  Universities are valuable in this process because they bring together so many intelligent young people excited about learning and moving forward.  Mr. Sampson’s quest to educate himself on the issues presented by the KKK’s actions should not have been stopped because of a misunderstanding.  Instead, his thirst for learning outside of the classroom should have been fostered.  Similarly, the students at the University of Delaware should have been allowed to engage in debates with one another rather than being virtually brainwashed into believing certain things about themselves and those around them.  A university is meant to be a place of learning, and these instances prove that some campuses have destroyed that ideal-instead focusing on what those in power believe to be right themselves.