Rebuilding Campus Community: The Wrong Imperative

A movement is afoot to restore our universities’ lost sense of purpose. Unfortunately, its leadership is hostile to liberal education. The movement goes by several names: “educating the whole person,” “the residential life revolution” and “the student learning imperative.” These Imperativists (our word, not theirs) are not scholars.  Their outlook largely derives from “the helping professions.” The Imperativists view the university as an instrument of progressive social change. In most cases, the faculty is bypassed.

Most faculty members are ignorant of the movement’s spreading influence, although it imperils their role as arbiters of academic content. This is an ignorance they can ill afford, because the Imperativist challenge aims at nothing less than the authority of learned judgment, reasoned discourse, and open mindedness. The traditional goals of the university are being threatened by a morally imperious philistinism.

We know how this came about. For several decades faculty members have allowed the definition of the educational mission to slip from their hands. Faced with an increasingly bureaucratized university, many have retreated into the redoubts of their scholarly specialties, paying less and less attention to the fulfillment of broader purposes. Teaching has often been scanted or dulled. The once serious concern for individual mentorship – the guidance of students through initial encounters with new ideas and systems of thought – is also fading. American faculties are far from perfect, but if the university is to reclaim an elevating and integrated vision, it must be guided by those who truly understand its ideals – a claim professors can make far better than the misguided functionaries now seizing upon the task.

Liberal education is emancipatory; it both opens and sharpens minds. It opens them through exposure to the robust debates that have provided civilization its most creative tensions. It sharpens them by focusing on what has brought these debates to their utmost levels of penetration, implication, and rigor. Widened horizons, breadth of knowledge, power of thought, and the intellectual confidence born of wrestling with serious issues are its culminating legacy. But this legacy can only be bequeathed by those who have themselves received it.       

The ends and means of the “student learning imperative” are otherwise. It seeks to “transform” students, but in a doctrinaire and coercive way. It assumes that undergraduates arrive on campus bearing a benighted inheritance – the values of traditional American culture – that must be replaced by more enlightened attitudes. Students must confess their racial, sexual, and other prejudices; admit that American society is, by its nature, oppressive; and pledge to promote specific forms of social and political change. In short, the “student learning imperative” aims at winning converts to an orthodoxy. The Imperativists offer thought reform, not education.

This is an affront to liberal principles and the education these principles should inspire. It also violates the basic maxims of university governance in which the faculty’s core responsibility for academic content is only shared, to a limited extent, with senior institutional fiduciaries.

The facts about this movement initially came to national attention in October 2007 at the University of Delaware, when some undergraduates complained of a mandatory dorm-based program in which white students were browbeaten into admitting they were racists; heterosexual students were interrogated about their sexual preference; and all students were pressured to commit themselves to reducing their “carbon footprint” by twenty percent. Freshmen were subjected to one-on-one meetings with residential advisors who were tasked by their supervisors to break down psychological resistance. The university first tried to deny these facts, but, when confronted with copies of the planning documents, “suspended” the program.

Was the University of Delaware’s program an aberration? A National Association of Scholars canvass, “How Many Delawares?” found that it was different in degree but not in kind from hundreds of others. Moreover, the NAS learned that this movement has a history, dating back to a 1994 call by the American College Personnel Association to improve the sense of “community” among students on campus.

In principle, that call was welcome. The university had lost many of the norms that once gave it cohesiveness. By the early 1990s, a Carnegie Commission study revealed that “lack of community” was the single most prevalent complaint among undergraduates. Unfortunately, instead of consulting with the faculty about how best to reinvigorate traditional ideals, student affairs “revolutionaries” (their own term) have been allowed to attempt the construction of a wholly new kind of student community, made up of a wholly new kind of student.

This movement is rich in catchphrases. For example, its proponents portray the college classroom as concerned merely with “information transfer,” while in the dorms, residence lifers take care of “the whole student” and “identity development.” At a recent national conference, residence lifers declared they were now “equal partners” with faculty in higher education. They characterized residence life in the old days as being concerned merely with “programming activities,” while under the new “curricular model,” res lifers, like faculty members, act as teachers.

Teachers of what?  And by what means? It is much in the interest of faculty members everywhere to begin posing these questions.

We believe that the common life of our campuses should be consistent with the goals of liberal education and, accordingly, guided principally by faculty. Although there may be faculty members perfectly happy with the “revolutionary” education served up by many residence life offices, we don’t believe the program can survive an open faculty debate about it.  

The “revolution in residence life” betrays the intellectual mission of the university in four ways.

  • Instead of giving students a sense of our civilization in all its richness and complexity, it insists on pat, simplistic, and tendentious answers.
  • Instead of providing an introduction to our civilization via sound scholarship, it offers the denunciations of untrained and narrow-minded partisans. Staff members in residence life may be well-meaning, but they can never be “equal partners” with the faculty.
  • Instead of demonstrating how people with diverse and differing views can form a worthy intellectual community, it suppresses differences, insisting instead on social and political conformity.
  • Instead of being candid about its intentions, it advances by stealth. Most faculty members and even many senior administrators have never heard of the “revolution in residence life.” That’s not an accident. The program has been insinuated onto campus under the cover of mere housekeeping reforms. The startling claims about residence life and educating “the whole person,” are seldom conveyed to the faculty. (Or, for that matter, to unsuspecting, bill-paying parents).

In sum, the new campus regime in residence life is illiberal throughout.

We believe this corrosive movement has run its course and that the time has come for responsible faculty members to assert their rightful stewardship. Colleges and universities should seek to rebuild community, but not in the regimented way embodied by “the student learning imperative.” Rather, they should seek to do it in a manner that respects liberal education’s fundamental ideals, that is to say, by:

  • Fostering a sense of community based on shared interests in learning, involving collective commitments to reasoned discourse, intellectual honesty, open mindedness, acceptance of dissent, and, above all, the pursuit of truth.
  • Respecting the individual dignity of all learners and disavowing attempts to intimidate dissent.     
  • Respecting a process of individual choice which encourages all learners to reach their conclusions in a manner that fortifies their abilities to advance in knowledge
  • Investing academic power in those who are intellectually competent to exercise it.

Only a community holding these ideals in common is consistent with the mission of the university in an open society. The “revolution in student life” disserves these ideals. It is time for those who truly prize them to reassume responsibility for their fulfillment.

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