What College Should Be: The Question Lurking Behind the Current Wave of Campus Unrest

By Alex Chediak Published on May 6, 2024

It’s sad to see what’s happening on so many campuses across the country; it reminds us how divided we are as a county. Worse, it’s a reminder of our inability to discuss complex issues in a civil manner.

If diverse viewpoints could be expressed objectively and respectfully anywhere, you’d think it’d be college campuses. But that isn’t the case. As pro-Palestinian protestors (aided by professional agitators and large groups of non-students) are still camping out on many Ivy League institutions — threatening, harassing, and even physically assaulting Jewish students — some schools are now canceling operations. They either can’t — or won’t — ensure student safety.

Police have arrested more than 2,100 people on 30 campuses so far.

No Ax to Grind

I love higher education. I’ve been a college professor for almost 20 years. College represents a season of academic preparation and moral development for young people, of transition from dependence into independence.

Yale University, photographed in a reflection.

I attended secular colleges for my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees; few of my fellow students were conservative or religious. I was at U.C. Berkeley during the turbulent days following 9/11, including the run-up to the Iraq War. I saw lots of protests there, but never felt unsafe. I never saw anyone hindered from accessing academic or open spaces. Republicans, Democrats, Christians, atheists – my experience was that students could disagree vehemently and not come to blows.

Students at places like Columbia University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Southern California (USC) deserve to be exposed to diverse perspectives and debate. It’s a hallmark of the college experience, especially at these kinds of schools.

Those of us who experienced it feel an acute sense of loss when scrolling through images and videos of the mayhem and violence. If only one viewpoint can be safely expressed, that’s the opposite of tolerance.  

Christians Have Always Cared About Education

Why should you care about this? In addition to the issues of free speech and democracy it highlights, you should care because Christians have always cared about education. Wherever the Gospel has gone, literacy and learning have risen in its wake. The first colleges in America, like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, were all founded as Christian schools.

We care about education because God gave us a Book. To read and understand it, we must be literate. More broadly, we care because we recognize that human intellect is a gift from God to be stewarded wisely. God has built rationality and intelligibility into us, not to mention moral intuition — timeless, transcultural ideals like justice, virtue, love, and forgiveness. We care about education because we want to honor God with the totality of our being, including our minds.

We want this for Christians, of course, but we also want it for everyone. Because we love our neighbors as ourselves. Because we care about the common good. Because, though strangers and aliens in this fallen world (1 Peter 2:11), we care about the welfare of our cities — for in their welfare, we find ours (Jeremiah 29:7).

Persuasion Is More Effective than Coercion

We should be deeply troubled by the rise in criminality on college campuses in recent days. Footage has emerged of a Jewish girl beaten unconscious by a group of protesters at UCLA. And the violence is going both ways: At least 15 pro-Palestinian protesters there were apparently injured in an overnight attack on their encampment. (These encampments are themselves a violation of campus rules, of course, but enforcing them is the responsibility of campus security, not counterprotestors.) Sadly, outside agitators also are jumping into the fray. Fewer than half of those arrested at NYU last week were students or staff.

We’re told to pray for those in authority so that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (I Timothy 2:2). Government at all levels is meant to restrain and punish law-breaking, ensuring the kind of stability that promotes human flourishing. Christians believe in the dignity of every person, including Jews and Palestinians. We also believe in persuasion and civil discourse rather than coercion of thought via intimidation.

In 2003, during the run-up to the Iraq War, I audited a class that brought in speaker after speaker to debate U.S. policy in the Middle East. There were different viewpoints, peaceful exchanges of ideas, and free speech. Nobody was canceled. But what’s happening now is the result of a bias so intense that trespassing, occupying academic spaces, and violence towards students is deemed justified. Speech is no longer free when you impede a university’s abilities to fulfill its core functions, disrespect property, or threaten other students.

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Likewise, the unauthorized encampments and crazy lists of protesters’ demands aren’t contributing to student learning about the complex history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, the Balfour declaration (1917), the Israeli war of independence and the Palestinian Nakba (1948), the Suez Crisis (1956), the Six-Day War (1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973), and the Lebanon Wars (1982 and 2006). Students aren’t learning about the attempts at a two-state solution (and why such attempts keep falling short) or Iran’s involvement with Hamas.

All of these are precursors to the October 7 massacre and Israel’s response to it. That the residents of Gaza are suffering is beyond dispute. Wars are awful and they inflict an incalculable toll on innocent civilians. It’s fine to debate Israeli policy, but do it peacefully, as Israelis themselves often do.

Campus Leadership Is Lacking

University leaders never should have let things get this far. It’s a complete dereliction of duty. Students deserve clear boundaries concerning what they can and cannot do when it comes to protests. And those boundaries must be enforced so everyone knows you mean it and they can safely access their education (including the many non-protesters who just want to attend classes and prepare for exams).

The Rotunda building at the University of Virginia.

But that hasn’t happened. The first, albeit small, student violations were not met with sanctions. By the time administrators responded, the encampments were so large, the gatherings so vast, and the impact on students’ safety so great that they didn’t have the manpower to deal with it. So local, county, and state law enforcement departments are now involved, and the news is filled with footage of violent police-student altercations from coast to coast.

New England Patriots owner Robert Craft is a Columbia graduate who, like me, had a positive experience as a student. He said it well: “Courage to do the right thing, a core attribute of effective leadership, is lacking at the highest level at our nation’s most elite academic institutions.”

What Can We Do?

We can pray for the lawlessness to end. We can pray that campus leaders would have the wisdom, courage, and compassion to restore order, because what’s happening now is not compassionate. Students don’t have safe access to the in-person education they paid for and deserve, and coddled occupiers aren’t getting an education, either. We’ve drifted far from the principle of education nurturing moral virtue and character as well as adding knowledge.

That’s where the second takeaway comes in. COVID-19 was transformative for K-12 education, because when the kids came home and their parents saw (over Zoom) what they were really learning in school, it wasn’t always pretty. Private and religious school enrollment, as well as homeschooling, exploded thereafter. Similarly, these outbursts of mayhem on college campuses have given parents a window into a cancer that’s metastasized at many of our elite universities.

Send your young adult to a college that will treat them like a young adult and not an overgrown infant. Send them to a college that will teach them to respect campus property and the rights of others. Send them to a college that will teach them to persuade others through well-reasoned and –supported arguments—not coerce them into capitulation through browbeatings (or actual beatings), intimidation, or threats. Send them to a college where leaders have the courage to put education first, disallow lawlessness, and enforce clear and reasonable standards for everyone.

 

 

Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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