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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Seething cauldrons

Civil, respectful dialogue seems to be a thing of the past on college campuses

Seething cauldrons

Students in Ann Arbor, Mich., rally as a show of support to University of Missouri students. (Dominic Valente/The Ann Arbor News via AP)

The valet at our hotel was eager to talk. He was, indeed, one of those fellows who, when I asked him casually if he’d grown up there in Savannah, Ga., proceeded to give us his whole life story.

But especially, for some reason, he was eager to tell us about the grief being imposed on his aging mother. She had taught for more than 25 years in a local college, and had relished that assignment. But somewhere in the recent past, she had caught a student cheating on a project—a pattern soon confirmed as she checked in with other faculty. No one else, though, had bothered to confront the wrongdoer.

Now the matter had taken a dark turn. Instead of joining his mother in promoting a high standard of academic integrity, the college’s administration was pursuing a line of discipline against his mother, charging her with jeopardizing the student’s rights. “My mother isn’t worried about herself,” my new friend stressed. “She’s kept careful notes about every detail. But she is worried about the college. Everything there has changed.”

Campuses are supposed to be places where a culture learns to avoid physical confrontation and moves instead toward verbal exchange.

Indeed, everything “there” has changed. But don’t suppose that such a sweeping charge applies only to the college in Savannah. Everything has changed, or is at least in the process of changing, throughout higher education in America. Frightening illustrations of that reality were beginning to dominate the news media just a few weeks ago. There was, for example, the embarrassing ruckus at the University of Missouri where the president was forced to resign and, for all practical purposes, students took over the leadership of the university. Seething cauldrons of physical unrest in Missouri came close to being replicated in Minnesota and Connecticut. Then came the call for removing the name of Woodrow Wilson from the program in his honor at Princeton University. Copycat demonstrations played out at one campus after another, and the whole movement seemed in late November to be picking up steam. Then came the horrific shootings in San Bernardino, Calif.—a development that eclipsed and perhaps even derailed, for a time, a protest movement that might otherwise have brought back memories of harsh campus unrest 50 years ago.

But don’t suppose that a temporary silence proves that the crisis on America’s campuses is going to go quietly away. The anger is deep. The resentments—often based on awkwardly volatile issues—are to be found in a huge variety of student and faculty groupings. 

Participating protesters appear to be impoverished on at least three fronts:

Many students, and even many faculty, have lost a handle on basic facts. They don’t know names and dates of people and places. Name a country (try Vietnam) and ask someone to match that country with a continent. Or ask a typical student to match World War II with a particular century. The stuttering silence might embarrass you.

Similarly distressing is the inability of so many in academia to keep a discussion on a coherently logical track. Many have never heard of the traditional logical fallacies and don’t even notice it when they move from the core or essence of the argument itself to beating up on the person (or persons) making the argument. This “appeal to force” has become a traditional campus diversion in recent years, just as it did at the University of Missouri this fall.

But especially destructive is the inability of so many folks in our colleges and universities to carry on a civil, respectful, and controlled conversation—a pattern that seems just as often true among faculty and administration folks as it is with freshman students. Campuses are supposed to be places where a culture learns to avoid physical confrontation and moves instead toward verbal exchange. American academia has tended instead to turn this lesson upside down.

That’s why I predict that as winter turns into spring, serious campus unrest will move big-time back into the nation’s headlines. And you’ll remember the sober analysis of the hotel valet here in Savannah: “Everything there has changed.”

Email jbelz@wng.org