Monday, August 18, 2008

Who Is Allowed to Educate?

Thomas Wood criticizes me in the most recent posting at NAS from his series about the Delaware Res Life plan. Wood writes, “many Res Life professionals now seem to that think it is perfectly acceptable to treat dorm residents as citizens to be trained and programmed rather than as students who are attending college to be educated by the faculty.” Of course, it's wrong to view students as people to be programmed (no matter who does it). But Wood is equally wrong when he views the purpose of college as “to be educated by the faculty.” The true purpose of college is simply “to be educated.” The faculty do a lot of this education in the formal curriculum. But students and faculty and staff and the public also educate students in the voluntary activities of the extracurriculum. Extracurricular activities are often non-intellectual (sports, parties, music, socializing). But many extracurricular activities are highly educational, including student groups, newspapers, speakers, and, yes, events in the dorms. For many students (including myself), extracurricular activities were often more intellectually challenging and educational than most classes.

The biggest problem at colleges today is that too little intellectual activity takes places outside the classroom, and extracurricular activities are rarely educational enough. So Wood's critique is right: much of the Delaware program is incredibly stupid. The only thing worse than a stupid educational program, however, is no educational program at all.

What is the alternative to Delaware's flaws? The approach of conservatives such as NAS and FIRE is to say that staff at Delaware should be banned from conducting any intellectual or controversial activity, and instead be limited to non-intellectual dorm parties. I have never understood why a ban on intellectual activity is deemed to be the best alternative to lousy intellectual activities. The proper approach is to recommend better activities, not to ban them.

Wood writes, “John K. Wilson, to name one defender of Delaware’s Res Life curricular programming, has claimed that this kind of programming is a 'good idea.' What, one might ask, is good about it? This, as I have suggested, is a vision of the Good Society as it might be conceived these days by Nurse Ratched.” Actually, no, Wood has it completely wrong. The aim of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was to suppress any activity, and make her prisoners easier to control. It's Wood, not the Delaware folks, who propose banning anything that might seem too exciting out of a concern for protecting the students from controversial ideas. It's Wood and his fellow conservatives who want to lobotomize Res Life staffers and prevent them from doing anything political.

Of course, neither Delaware Res Life staffers nor Randle McMurphy in Kesey's novel were models of human liberation. They both made some bad decisions, pushed things too far, and ultimately misunderstood the true meaning of freedom. Delaware's Res Life effort to educate students about important issues was a good idea. It just had poor execution. Some of the Res Life activities, then and now, are truly stupid. But banning politics from residence hall programs is exactly the wrong way to make them better.

We need to have a new model of extracurricular activities, one which values important intellectual discussions, debates of differing ideas, and a fundamental commitment to the concept of free speech and free thought. We need residence halls and campuses founded upon freedom and a commitment to education, where everyone is free to talk about politics and other controversial ideas, and everyone is free to educate one another.

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