We all want to belong to something. We want to feel we are not alone. We want to believe we are part of a greater whole. However, there are some who believe the world, and its hallowed institutions, owe them more than due respect, and contrived honor — they believe they are entitled to not just set an agenda, but to rewrite the future plans of us all for their benefit alone.
Students protesting university policy is ordinary, expected, and commonplace. Students want to test boundaries, and to stretch their intellectual capacity, and to learn where the levers of power belong in an arc of a history that existed before them, and that will, and shall, extend to outlive them.
All of that is fine unless, and until, the student tries to takeover those levers of power to do specific damage to another student, faculty member, or the institution itself.
The university does not belong to the student. The university belongs to itself.
Our delightful friend Camille Paglia was recently in the news — for being attacked by students at her university for not being more like them, and for promoting her causes above theirs; and yes, Camille is brilliant, and smart, and brash — and in 2019, I previously wrote about Camille’s take on Lady Gaga:
Here’s how Tom Nichols, of The Atlantic, parses the current fight against Camille:
It is no surprise to find Camille Paglia, a professor at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts who has been outraging people across the social and political spectrum for three decades, embroiled in one of these controversies. Paglia proposed to give a talk titled “Ambiguous Images: Sexual Duality and Sexual Multiplicity in Western Art.” According to a letter released by two student activists, “a gender non-binary creative writing major” had “brought this lecture to the student body’s attention through social media and raised their concerns to Title IX and other University administration about the school giving Camille a platform.” This led to a group of students demanding that Paglia (who self-identifies as transgender) be removed from the faculty “and replaced by a queer person of color.”
Now, setting aside the morbid details of the Paglia saga at the University of the Arts, let’s take a wider view of the matter — that a niche of students believe they are entitled to demand their way be the way of the university, and they alone decide who stays, who goes, and what can and cannot be taught.
Paying tuition does not give one the irrevocable keys to the kingdom.
Students do not set university policy.
Students, though they hate knowing this fact, are transient, and they are only residually influential in the university after they are gone, as an alumnus, if they donate a lot of money back to the university, or if they have a certain modicum of power and infamy. Students wrongly believe they have eternal power in perpetuity, but their influence begins and ends with their enrollment and graduation — about four years in total — while the university, and its machinations, churn on beyond them.
To allow students to threaten a teacher, or to take an entire university to task — for a matter that is remote, and unfamiliar, to many — is to set upon a dangerous path of intimidation and retribution. Students may question anything, and everything, but there isn’t a fine line between being boorish and cruel and thoughtful and introspective.
Students, when applying to a university, are asking to be considered for acceptance — and it is the odd student who then takes the next, unnatural, leap of faith that they are actually in charge of the university.
Students don’t know what they do not know — but the university, as an enduring institution, better knows what the student needs to know; and that’s why some of the most prestigious universities present a mandatory learning plan for all students.
That “program of study” covers all the basics, and the elements needed to form a human understanding of the world. There are no electives. The student is an undergraduate in need of training, education, and restitution of the mind.
Other than needing to learn how the world operates, there are three other main reasons students choose one university over another: Reputation, Affordability, and Connections.
Reputation is just that — the student buys into the good works of the university. The student becomes part of the whole. The history of the school becomes the student’s future.
Affordability is important to some students who want an education, but who also do not want to break the future of their lives by never being absolved of their student loan debt.
Finally, Connections. A university defines dreams, goals and inspirations — and in that measure of the mindful, one hopes to find other, similar, like-minds, that will allow expressions of success that will linger long beyond the diploma begins to yellow, and crumble.
The best way for the anarchic student to learn how to gain, and manage, power, is to become a part of the very university they seek to fight, and change. An outsider may try to force perspective upon the center, but when a persuasive, thoughtful, argument is made from the inside — that also makes emotional sense — then new ideas will begin to corrode outdated, internal, policy, and the entire bedrock of the university may shudder with change, without fear of dissolving, or of being chiseled away from within.
Camille Paglia knows this; but do her student adversaries?