To Learn or Not to Learn

November 27, 2015

By Dave Trecker at Naples News

Some thoughtful people are asking a thoughtful question, one perhaps long overdue: What is the real purpose of higher education?

Is it to learn the basics of math, writing, literature, science, history? To learn to think and reason? To prepare for employment?

Or is it to try to change the world — whether you can spell or not? Is it to force changes on universities terrified of offending liberal students who may or may not be able to write a coherent paragraph or balance their checkbooks?

Or is it to do both, if you can? Picket and demonstrate and still maintain a decent grade point average. And even if you can, as a callow youth who doesn’t know squat about the real world, should you?

Recent events underscore the predicament.

– University of Missouri students, supported by some on the football team, forced a president to resign over failure to punish supposed racial slurs.

– Yale students railed against attempts by liberal faculty to ensure free speech because it wasn’t liberal enough.

– Wesleyan students tried to shut down the campus newspaper for printing an op-ed critical of Black Lives Matter.

– Princeton undergrads demanded renaming the Woodrow Wilson School because Wilson, a Democrat, was a segregationist in his youth.

– Meanwhile protesters at Amherst College decried free speech because something said offended their sensibilities.

– Muslim students forced the University of Michigan to scrap the screening of “American Sniper,” arguing that it propagated the myth that terrorism comes mostly from Muslims.

Takeover of administration buildings has become old hat, and destruction of university property by morally outraged students is commonplace.

Vetoing commencement speakers has become a cottage industry. Recent victims include Christine Lagarde, Colin Powell, Jerry Seinfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had the temerity to criticize Islam.

But the news isn’t all bleak. Some schools are fighting back. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, L. Gordon Crovitz reports that the University of Chicago — his school and mine — has developed a set of principles to promote free expression. That’s at least a start.

Crovitz points out that free speech at Chicago, hardly a bastion of conservative thought, goes back many years and is reflected in comments by some of its past presidents.

Robert Hutchins: The cure for objectionable ideas “lies through open discussion rather than than through prohibition.”

Hannah Gray: “It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive.”

The new (hardly new, but at least restated) principles developed at Chicago are based on the notion that “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some … to be offensive, unwise or wrong-headed.”

That applies to racism, war, pestilence, pollution, greed, whatever. As students, you may not like these things, and it’s proper to speak against them. But we’re not going to let you run roughshod over dissenters or shut down the campus to make your point. That’s not the purpose of higher education.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has endorsed the Chicago principles, and faculty at Princeton and Purdue have signed on. Other beleaguered schools are likely to follow.

But precepts and doctrines go only so far. Universities must demand and enforce civil behavior. They must insist that institutions of higher learning are for education, not for spawning disruptive behavior that is the very antithesis of thoughtful debate.

I am always amazed that students, paying record tuitions, have time for such nonsense. I didn’t. None of my family or extended family did. And my oldest granddaughter, an engineering student, certainly does not.

At the end of the day, most of these students have to get a job. What really counts then?

I’m fairly confident employment standards haven’t changed all that much from my working days. Back then, as a manager, I wanted to know if the graduate was properly schooled in chemistry or engineering or marketing, if he or she could reason and write a coherent report. Certain skills were needed for employment.

Trashing the provost’s office wasn’t one of them.

Schools: Amherst College Wesleyan University Princeton University University of Missouri – Columbia University of Michigan – Ann Arbor Yale University Cases: University of Missouri: Policing of “Hurtful” Speech Yale University: Protesters at Yale Threaten Free Speech, Demand Apologies and Resignations from Faculty Members Over Halloween Email