On the Purpose of Higher Education

"This is what a college should look like" - President Dwight D. Eisenhower at Dartmouth in 1953

This is what a college should look like.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower at Dartmouth in 1953

The fall of 2015 was wrought with controversy, outrage, and criticism regarding the state of higher education in the United States. The University of Missouri was stricken by massive protests spurred by the dangerous racial tensions on its campus. Mizzou “got the ball rolling” for a season of strife, beginning with the football team’s strike, followed by some controversy regarding the actions of student reporters, and ultimately culminating in university president Timothy Wolfe’s resignation. It was not long after that our own College on the hill was hit with a similar spectacle after a Black Lives Matter protest in the library turned violent. Protestors harassed a countless number of students studying for finals in the library, actions deemed unlawful under New Hampshire’s Title LXII Breaches of the Peace.

Fellow Ivy League institution Yale University was also home to similar protests after college lecturer Erika Christakis, in an email sent to her residential college, expressed her opinion that the cultural appropriation of the then-upcoming Halloween Holiday might not be in the best interests of community. She also voiced concerns about at the state of First Amendment rights on the campus, stating that, “free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” Students responded with campus-wide protests, also speaking out against the alleged turning away of a black student at a fraternity party. During these protests, students in Christakis’ residential college engaged her husband, Professor Nicholas Christakis, and were videotaped lividly berating the house master, one of them screaming at him to “Be quiet!” and asking him, “Why the f— did you accept the position?! You should step down!” While these outbursts emotionally charged, and incredibly disrespectful of a Professor Christakis, the most concerning statement from the student is as follows:

“It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It is about creating home here!

She could not be more wrong.

As written on Yale’s website, the purpose of their residential college system is to “allow students to experience the cohesiveness and intimacy of a small school while still enjoying the cultural and scholarly resources of a large university” and “to foster spirit, allegiance, and a sense of community at Yale.” The responsibility of a residential college master is “for the physical well being [sic] and safety of students in the residential college, as well as for fostering and shaping the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college.” According to the official description, the housemaster is ultimately tasked with creating an intellectual space.

What is most concerning about this protestor’s statement is that she wholeheartedly believes it. Traditionally, the college has the place for intellectual exploration, for facing new challenges, for the exploration of new and, yes, controversial ideas. Yet, as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff write in their now-famous Atlantic essay “The Coddling of the American Mind,” “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like.” Institutional willingness to comply with these demands under the guise of “safety concerns” is an affront to the original philosophy behind higher education, and presents a very frightening prospect: risking the culture of free speech we have promoted since our founding. Today’s students are not being taught to think critically about situations, and are no longer willing to fight for this right. Instead students prefer to adopt an emotionalist mindset, worrying about the consequences of speech rather than the facilitation and proliferation of new ideas and constructive discourse.

It is no secret to the average student that Dartmouth College is comprised of a horde of both well-known and obscure official divisions, organizations, and offices that already go a long way toward catering to students’ wants and needs. The school’s administration hosts groups such as the Office of Pluralism and Leadership (OPAL), Intergroup Dialogue, and a variety of group-specific advising groups. The Review has previously covered the issues present in the current system of undergraduate advisor, or UGA, practices.  It becomes almost impossible to say that the College fails to cater to each individual in a variety of ways, from sports to career advising to mental health counseling. The word “privilege” takes on a new meaning simply by browsing the College’s website.

In fact, the American university system stands in stark contrast to any other in the world. Take, for instance, the European system of higher education, a true “no-frills” experience. College tuition is typically very low, if even existent, and students are attending college in record numbers. Office hours from professors are usually offered once a week for about an hour at a time for classes numbering into the hundreds of students, offering little opportunity for mentorship. On-campus or college-facilitated housing is the exception to the norm. Most programs are strictly major-focused, offering little if any liberal arts exploration. School-affiliated sports teams are unheard of. A college-sponsored, for-profit dining service is also atypical. All in all, the average European university is possesses far fewer resources than the average American university.

This top-notch quality of an education (or, better said, an educational experience) is something we as the beneficiaries of this great privilege should treasure. Our educational opportunities, though at a cost, are unparalleled, and our position to continue a tried-and-true system of success should not be deterred; yet this is exactly the danger present in these recent protests. The foundation on which American higher education was built is crumbling under the pressure of sacrilegious protests. Though the College certainly oversteps its bounds with regard to egregious administrative bloat and excessive divisions (what, exactly, does OPAL really accomplish?), it is a true privilege to attend an institution with such offerings. Our duty as students is to foster an intellectual space, contribute to the furtherance of the institution itself and to our own learning. Though the College on a Hill may feel like a home to many, its true purpose – and let it not be lost – is the fostering of an intellectual community.