What Would the Founders Think of the Modern University?

By July 9, 2008

(Maggie Rackl is a senior at the College of Charleston, where she majors in History with a minor in Asian Studies, and a 2008 FIRE Summer Intern.)

In my experience, a favorite question of college and university admissions applications is the classic, "If you could go to dinner with any one person, living or dead, who would it be and what would you discuss?" As much of a groaner as this question is, I find it particularly fun to imagine chatting with any one of the many founders of our nation over plates of meat and potatoes and steins of grog. But upon further reflection, the fun I have imagined would almost certainly be replaced with dread.

You see, I’m afraid I would have a difficult time explaining exactly what a "speech code" is to James Madison. Just imagine how red my cheeks would be when I had to tell Thomas Jefferson that due process was essentially eliminated at the university that he himself founded. I doubt I’d have the heart to tell George Mason that dissent and the distribution of flyers are the current enemies of his namesake university. I think it’s a safe bet to assume that none of these gentlemen would be particularly pleased with my reports. We would sit in stony, embarrassed silence and wait for the check to arrive. "No thank you," I would say. "We won’t be having any dessert."

I’m constantly plagued by the question of where this overblown cultural sensitivity has come from. Are we really so weak that we cannot handle hearing things with which we disagree? Where is our grit, where are our collective national guts? Thinking back to the soldiers who dined on shoe leather at Valley Forge or the families who went westward in covered wagons into the unknown frontier, I wonder whether or not they were offended by the utterances around them so readily as those on a modern university campus seem to be.

Perhaps I’m too cynicalmaybe we do possess the strength to overcome what we find offensive. If this is true, then who is to blame for the rash of limitations put on free speech and thought in the very places where speech and thought are supposedly enriched and embraced? I tend to agree with FIRE co-founder Alan Charles Kors’ assertion that those in charge of academia have been corrupted by the power given to them. Many of these administrators and deans are products of a generation that sought to abolish in loco parentisthe notion that college students were still children in need of parental guidance provided by the university. But now the generation that brought us the "hippies" and "flower children" seems to have itself become that ubiquitous abhorrence, "The Man."

Luckily, FIRE is keeping a watchful eye on colleges and universities so that students and professors alike can enjoy the freedoms they deserve and expect of higher education. James, Thomas, and George would be proud.

Schools: University of Virginia George Mason University