College should be a place of higher learning

December 5, 2005

I don’t recall dorm life as being for the faint of heart.

Apart from hall surfing, contact highs and “the walk of shame” following an ill-advised romantic encounter, living in a dormitory requires young people to learn to put up with beliefs and behavior that may make them uncomfortable.

Universities often view this as a good thing. Living among those with different values, they claim, is a “broadening” experience. Being offended can actually be educational.

But not all forms of offense are equally enlightening. Exposure to vulgarity, casual sex and music reminiscent of the slaughter of cats presumably opens minds and expands perspectives. On the other hand, being forced to witness a group of students praying is more than anyone should have to put up with.

Or so said the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. It tried to forbid its resident assistants (you remember, the upperclassmen whose job it was to listen to you complain) from leading Bible studies in dorms. Such exotic behavior, according to university officials, might make some students uncomfortable.

These sensitive – forgive the expression – “souls” might be reluctant to ask their RA to get the toilets unplugged for fear that they will, according to the school, be “judged or pushed in a direction that does not work for them.” Perhaps that religious RA will conduct an exorcism of your obnoxious roommate rather than assign her to a new suite.

The university’s attempt to keep dorms safe for Eminem and safe from Ephesians didn’t last long. Challenged by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Alliance Defense Fund (full disclosure: I have represented both groups on a pro bono basis in other matters), it surrendered about as quickly as a French soldier who has heard a Volkswagen backfire.

Last week, within an hour of the filing of a lawsuit, the school lifted its ban until campus and UW System reviews of the policy are completed.

Wisdom too often never comes, so it ought not to be rejected simply becomes it comes late. Still, Eau Claire’s beat-down provides a “teachable moment” about the abuses of tolerance in the university.

While the school said it was merely trying to ensure that RAs be approachable and not identified with controversial views that others might not share, it never applied the policy in an even-handed way.

Last year, the student newspaper ran a feature about an RA who had spearheaded her dorm’s production of “The Vagina Monologues,” a play that contains celebration of the molestation of a 13-year-old girl by a woman (“if it was rape, it was a good rape”) and has been criticized by even feminist commentators as hostile to men.

Whatever its merits (about which I express no view), such a production certainly might make some students uncomfortable. Some may feel that an RA who has promoted it might “judge them or push them in a direction that does not work for them.” Yet the same university that attempted to ban RAs from public study of the Bible regarded the production as “empowering.” Perhaps it was, but might not Bible studies be empowering as well?

This lack of balance reflects the unexamined bigotry of the “sophisticated.” Unable or unwilling to distinguish Elmer Gantry from Pope John Paul II, our academic elites often regard religion as irrational and judgmental in a way that, say, Ward Churchill’s belief that the victims of 9-11 had it coming is not.

They assume that people of faith will impose their beliefs on others, while those committed to a radical critique of traditional values “respect diversity” or simply hold a set of views that everyone either shares or ought to share.

This is, as the saying goes, “nonsense on stilts.” Modern notions of freedom of conscience have deep roots in our Judeo-Christian tradition. Those who believe that religious faith is incompatible with reason ought to read Augustine and Aquinas. Anyone who thinks that dogmatism is somehow unique to religious people has never hung around your average university sociology department.

A society that permits freedom of expression cannot protect us from offense. Some people have half-baked political ideas. Others regard vulgarity and outrageousness as “transgressive” and “profound.” Some people even read the Bible.

College seems like a fine time to learn this.

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Schools: University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire Cases: University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire: Ban on RAs’ Leading Bible Studies