The Lighting of a Fire

By December 15, 2009

by Erin Kahn

What is the purpose of a university? Is it simply to fill students’ minds with facts and beliefs held by other people? Is it to provide them with a knowledge of math, history, English, science, and other useful subjects? While this second answer should be a part of the purpose, there is an underlying goal to education that every good teacher will work towards and every intelligent student will strive for. The main purpose of a university should be to prepare students for the rest of their lives by teaching them to think for themselves. Undoubtedly, William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, had this purpose in mind when he said, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." Something similar to this idea must have been among the many reasons our forefathers had in mind for creating the First Amendment, guaranteeing all Americans freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition. Yet for some universities within America, Yeats’ statement and the First Amendment seem to have little meaning.

One such university, Valdosta State, showed disregard and perhaps even contempt for the freedoms protected in the First Amendment through the creation of their "free speech zone," which at first glance may seem in favor of freedom of speech, but which, in reality, put heavy regulations on the freedom of speech allowed the students at Valdosta State University. Such an act constitutes a direct violation of the passage in the First Amendment which states, "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech." As if this weren’t reason enough to accuse Valdosta State of violating the First Amendment, the university further expelled its student T. Hayden Barnes for peacefully protesting against a new school parking lot, a right guaranteed him by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The school expelled Barnes on the grounds that he presented a "clear and present danger," but where is the danger in a peaceful protest led by a student who wishes to right a wrong in his community? Perhaps the danger was clear to the staff at Valdosta State, but its clarity seems to elude the rest of us.

Another university that denied its students First Amendment rights, the University of Delaware, attempted to indoctrinate its students with specific beliefs through required dormitory activities, and encouraged students to conform to certain ideas and thoughts, placing no value on the students’ abilities to think for themselves and act in accordance with their individual minds and consciences. Such obvious disregard for the First Amendment and for the purpose of education as expressed by Yeats may cause some to wonder if the University of Delaware properly understood or even cared about the true purpose of education. The university’s Office of Residence Life sought not to light a fire, but to fill a pail, and to fill it with their own specific beliefs by seeking to change their students’ processes of thought, actions, and values, which would have filled their heads and hearts with a set of principles and ideas that were not their own. One of the marks of a truly great citizen is his ability to think for himself and to come up with his own individual solutions and ideas, and part of the purpose of education should be to create good citizens out of its students by teaching them to think for themselves and to trust in their own individuality without feeling a need to conform to the beliefs of others. As a prestigious college responsible for the education of over 20,000 students each year, the University of Delaware ought to be more concerned with creating intelligent, nonconformist citizens out of its students, but apparently, this is not a goal of the university.

In a nation founded upon principles of freedom and individuality, inhabited by a people who pride themselves on their liberties and "inalienable rights," as guaranteed them by the government, such obvious restrictions of freedom seem to undermine the whole purpose of America, let alone the nation’s education system. By restricting its students’ freedom of speech and expelling T. Hayden Barnes for protesting, Valdosta State University was, knowingly or unknowingly, teaching its students the unacceptability of voicing their own opinions, and providing them with examples of the punishments that would follow were they to voice those opinions. By attempting to fill its students’ minds with specific beliefs and ideas, the University of Delaware was teaching its students conformity, while trying to cause them to experience doubt as to the correctness of their individual thoughts and feelings. Thus, the students at these two universities were indeed learning something, but that something was not the thing that colleges were designed to teach. Had they continued to repress their students’ liberties unnoticed, these colleges may have succeeded in creating a group of people who were the exact opposite of what good citizens should be: people who experience a constant fear of expressing themselves and who are unwilling to stand for anything because they are trained in conformity and believe themselves wrong if their thoughts in any way differ from those accepted by the majority of society. This result also constitutes the opposite of what the end goal of education ought to be, to light a fire in the minds and hearts of its pupils that will enable them to become good citizens and intelligent people, boldly expressing their beliefs regardless of the opinions of society, and taking stands for what they know in their own minds to be true.