True Revolutionaries on College Campuses

True Revolutionaries on College Campuses
Becky Malewitz/South Bend Tribune via AP
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After a year like the one we’ve had so far, it is remarkable that the protestors at Mike Pence’s Notre Dame commencement speech even qualified as “news.” There’s nothing “new” about these kinds of protests: they’ve been happening with particular force and frequency since the beginning of this year.

Indeed, the reaction to Pence was relatively mild when compared with other protests on campuses this year. College students loudly booed Betsy DeVos; attempted to attack Charles Murray; Heather MacDonald and Ann Coulter were unable to speak to students in person; and Ann Coulter’s invitation was rescinded.

How did we get here? What have students been taught if they resort so quickly to disruptive PR-stunts and even violence to make their protests heard—and to drown out other voices?

There are two reasons. First, despair about the power of conversation to achieve consensus is ascendant in our universities today—and has profoundly impacted our culture as a result. Second, universities have largely given up their core purpose, namely, to hand on a wealth of received and cherished knowledge.

That’s why it shouldn’t surprise us that these protests keep bubbling up across the country. If our college students can’t reason persuasively, what should we expect from leaders trained in those very same colleges? And if students’ learning is limited to a tendentious ideological “narrative,” why should we be surprised that they have so little interest in listening, thinking, and seeing something new?

We see this despair nearly everywhere we turn—most prominently in our politics. The low caliber of our debates, the ever-increasing use of negative advertising, and the gossipy tenor of news media make it abundantly clear that we as a culture have abandoned hope in the ability of conversation to achieve union.

On the other hand, this kind of behavior should shock and worry us. It completely subverts the proper role of a university in a democratic society.

America was founded on certain principles, one of which is the freedom of speech. We spill ink, not blood, over our disagreements; we make arguments to, not attacks on, our opponents. This principle is at the heart of our political system—what are elections if not sustained arguments over the direction of the country? As Lincoln aptly put it, ballots, rather than bullets, are the means by which our system functions.

So it’s essential for colleges and universities to prepare students to become citizens who govern well by teaching them how to reason well, how to argue well, and how to debate well. A university that encourages emotional grandstanding and tolerates violence is like a hospital that wounds and maims its patients. In both cases, there is a loss of purpose.


It is also essential for our educational institutions to teach students real bodies of knowledge. Students introduced to great thought and learning encounter truths that move them to love things higher and greater than themselves.

Higher education has failed to make itself a place of actual conversation and real knowledge, and we see clearly the results of that change.

What is needed is a radical act of recovery.

We must restore the original purpose of a university by teaching students great things alongside the vital skills of reasoning, argumentation, and civil discourse. This means rejecting the noisy slogan-think of our whirlwind media and instead allowing time to consider fully the nuances and implications of arguments and actions. Civility, reason, and substance should reign supreme in the classroom. Self-indulgent and self-righteous passion should not.

The liberal arts, properly taught at a collegiate level, are meant to allow time and space for students to think deeply through complex arguments, explain that thinking to others, create compelling arguments, and listen--with understanding and respect--to arguments counter to their own. A mind trained in this way is a true asset to any discussion.

Thirty years ago, the late Allan Bloom wrote, “The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.”

Colleges and universities are goose-stepping toward this “successful tyranny,” by removing disagreeable viewpoints from campus. Subtleties or even differences of thought and opinion are flattened into only “acceptable” opinion—no dissent allowed.

Nowadays, it seems the most revolutionary college campuses are not the ones that merely replicate the noise and nonsense that we see in social media, in public affairs, and in the news. The true radicals are institutions that reject bullying and belittlement, and rely on reasoning and reflection. They have the courage to stand still, stand apart, and stand free.

David Whalen is provost and professor of English at Hillsdale College.

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