Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Debating the Dorms

George Leef of the Pope Center critiques my recent appearance on residence hall programs at the NAS conference. After getting my title wrong (I’m not a professor of English, I’m a Ph.D. student in education), and calling me “a resolute defender of leftist orthodoxy” (whatever that means), Leef argues that I’m wrong:

“There’s a gaping hole in Wilson’s argument. The sort of orchestrated ‘learning’ under academically untrained people that comprises the ResLife program necessarily crowds out other kinds of learning that students would choose to engage in. The vapid programming of ResLife has, in other words, opportunity costs, including time students might devote to actual coursework, spontaneous discussions of the issues that most matter to students, and independent reading about politics or whatever else students are interested in. Wilson’s defense rests on a false dichotomy between the ‘intellectual activity’ of the ResLife program and nothing. But students aren’t usually doing nothing. The activities they choose are probably more beneficial (even sleeping!) than the hectoring they get in ResLife.”

Actually, it’s Leef who has a gaping hole in his argument here. The dichotomy between the ResLife program and “nothing” is not a false one, it’s true. The conservatives were demanding that ResLife eliminate any programming with content and simply hold pizza parties. The notion that students would engage in “independent reading” if not for the activities organized by ResLife is rather ridiculous to argue. Leef claims, “The activities they choose are probably more beneficial (even sleeping!) than the hectoring they get in ResLife.” Perhaps so. But shouldn’t students get to choose? And since we were debating a purely voluntary program, students should be the ones who decide if they prefer to attend an activity or sleep or engage in independent reading. Trying to “protect” students from activities you think aren’t good for them isn’t freedom, it’s in loco parentis.

Leef has another line of argument, that only faculty have the expertise on this matter: “it’s like doctors and receptionists. Doctors aren’t always right, but as a rule it’s far better to keep the decision-making in the hands of people who have some expertise.”

Unfortunately, this is wrong again. Technically, student life personnel (including those at Delaware) are often the ones with expertise, holding advanced degrees in education. Most faculty have little expertise in student life. But I don’t accept the expertise argument anyway. Everyone should be free to educate anyone else, without compulsion, without needing to have a Ph.D. before being allowed to express a point of view or organize an educational event.

We need more educational events on campus, not fewer. We need more intellectual activity, inside and outside the classroom. And we need to encourage controversial ideas, not seek to ban them anywhere. That’s the key argument that my critics have failed to address.

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