Campus Thuggery Is No Way to Cultivate Citizens

Sit-ins and stomping about are a recipe for illiberal education
19th Apr, 2024. Despite over a hundred arrests the previous day, the student-led pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia University has now relocated to a different quadrant of the lawn after the previous day's disbandment by the NYPD.
Students occupy part of the campus at Columbia University on April 19, a day after the New York Police Department arrested over 100 pro-Palestine protesters.

Columbia University canceled in-person classes yesterday after weekend protests that the Biden White House termed “unconscionable and dangerous.” The New York Police Department ultimately arrested more than a 100 protesters who’d been part of the unruly mob chanting “Hamas, we love you, we support your rockets too!” and had turned Columbia’s campus into something that looked like a makeshift homeless encampment. The chaos was striking but hardly a one-off. Similar performances have erupted across the country, usually without consequence. That made the arrests at Columbia notable. It also punctuates a recent trend in which leaders at other institutions—including Vanderbilt University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Pomona College—finally did something they should have done long ago: mete out consequences to the bullies who are occupying campus buildings, sparking violence, vandalizing property, and threatening their peers.

Watching Columbia’s calamity unfold over the past several days, I couldn’t help but recall an earlier episode in the university’s history: the open letter penned to the institution’s then-president in 1968 by Mark Rudd, the campus head of Students for a Democratic Society, the day before Columbia’s famed student uprising. As Rudd so succinctly put it at the time: “Up against the wall, motherf—–, this is a stick-up.”

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As practiced today, campus protests feature a lot of appetite, id, and ego. Taking their cue from the cultural memory of Rudd and his fellow ‘60s-era showmen, they’re histrionic affairs rather than considered ones. They’re about spectacle rather than contemplation. Indeed, they seem calculated to stymie reasoned discourse and serious inquiry, which makes them rather a poor fit for serious institutions of higher education. And yet, many faculty who privately fret about all this prove to be strangely reluctant to speak up. Far worse, other scholars seem bizarrely untroubled about the impact of campus chaos on the work of teaching and learning. Indeed, the chaos apologists appear oddly indifferent to the value of what happens in their classrooms.

Even as the Vanderbilt drama played out, a couple of Carleton College professors—Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder—got around to taking umbrage at a column I’d written late last year (academic timelines, you know). They penned an extended essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education in defense of, well, campus disorder. You see, they were troubled by my suggestion that “the historic purpose of campus free speech is not to provide banner-waving protesters with a bucolic backdrop, but to facilitate the unfettered pursuit of truth and understanding in teaching, learning, and research.”

To their minds, my observing that “there’s nothing particularly educational about the protests, letters, and rallies” makes me a member of the “shut up and study” crowd. In the end, after many, many words, Khalid and Snyder circle back to snipe at a point that I’d thought might provide a bit of viewpoint-neutral common ground for those committed to free inquiry: that the overriding purpose of campus free speech is to safeguard “the freedom to inquire in classrooms, not the freedom to wave banners on the quad.”

Khalid and Snyder really don’t like that idea, insisting, “We reject the notion that the only worthwhile demonstrations on campus are those that take place in science labs.” Umm. Okay, then. Khalid and Snyder proceed to explain that colleges have a “dual pedagogical mission” that involves cultivating “critical-thinking skills” and “informed, engaged citizens,” and that therefore . . . well . . . honestly, this is where things get murky. They offer a lot of verbiage but not a lot of illumination.

Arguing that students learn citizenship by protesting (or by watching others do so), Khalid and Snyder insist that therefore, colleges should welcome this stuff. They decry institutions that have “tightened rules for student demonstrations,” explain that “political protests are designed to ruffle feathers,” and assert that “the whole point of a demonstration is to make a lot of noise and snap people out of their indifference.” But then the message gets muddled. They go on to vaguely allow that “some basic ground rules must be followed”—including no “targeted harassment,” no “heckler’s veto,” and an allowance for time, place, and manner restrictions. The various contingencies seemingly complicate their celebration of noise-making and feather-ruffling.

But let’s set all that aside and focus on Khalid and Snyder’s insistence that preparation for citizenship entails students “having [their] voice heard,” “advocat[ing] for positions dear to their hearts,” and learning “tactics,” “strategies,” and “when and how to make alliances and compromises.” They’ve certainly captured an element of citizenship, even if it’s not clear why any of it (especially the tactics, alliances, and compromises) requires sit-ins or campus disruption.

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Look, as I’ve said many times, saying “I want!” is actually the easy part of citizenship. It’s an impulse that comes pretty naturally, one that we all hone as toddlers and teenagers. I’m skeptical that the best preparation for citizenship is helping college kids channel adolescent egotism.

Indeed, it seems odd to suggest that our civil troubles are the product of insufficiently indignant dissent. In a landscape pocked by hyperbolic social media, pro-terrorist theatrics on campus, and performative MAGA lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives, do we really think America’s problem is a lack of activism?

As a one-time high school civics teacher, I wholly embrace the need to prepare students for democratic citizenship. But participation in a democracy is about a lot more than activism and voting. It’s also about responsibility, respect for rules, patience, wisdom, and a willingness to work with those who see things differently.

These are the democratic habits that students should be learning in classrooms, seminars, and public forums. These are sober, individual virtues; they’re learned not by becoming part of a slogan-chanting mob but by individuals having the opportunity to absorb, listen, discuss, and reflect. (I know, I know. You can practically smell the hegemonic oppression . . .)

Colleges which took these virtues seriously would equip students for activism that’s more grounded, informed, and self-aware—and, quite possibly, more likely to yield an impact that transcends social media. But there’s nothing about higher ed today that’s reassuring on that count. Worse, the rallies, occupations, and attendant bullying have corroded the kinds of thoughtful exchanges that promote healthy citizenship.

We cultivate citizens by helping youth listen, learn, reflect, and then speak their minds as autonomous individuals. Democratic citizens should learn to think and speak independently, for themselves. Teaching students to spew vitriol from the safe anonymity of a smartphone or a mob is the very antithesis of that.

Historically, learning to be a part of a masked, faceless mob has been a recipe not for cultivating democrats but for producing jack-booted thugs. Up against the wall, motherf—–, indeed.

Frederick Hess is an executive editor of Education Next and the author of the blog “Old School with Rick Hess.”

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