Before dawn in Nickel Mines today, bulldozers demolished the schoolhouse where a madman’s murder and mayhem brought unfathomable sorrow to the Amish community last week. Earlier this week, schools in Montgomery County, Culpeper County and Arlington endured various alerts as a result of threats to student safety. Meanwhile, President Bush and education officials gathered in a special summit to talk about the problem of violence in schools. No amount of talk will stop the madmen with guns and grudges. The schools are not violent, the culture is violent.
Universities are places where smart people supposedly think about solutions to social problems. Higher education generally has been remarkably silent on the issue of violence in society and in schools. Instead, higher education today seems beseiged in a very different way, consumed with its own internal problems and disputes, dissipating its considerable resources in defense of misconduct by presidents or athletes, lost in the arcane quagmire of regulatory excess and competitive angst. We academics seem to have lost our voices at a time when this society could use some clear public expressions of new directions to that Good Society the sociologists love to describe.
I’m thinking about the seige of our schools this morning as I read about the protesters shutting down a great University, Gallaudet. I have no doubt that there are legitimate issues fueling this protest, and those must be addressed. But, somehow, it strikes me as perverse that a university community cannot find a way to manage its disagreements without shutting down the teaching and learning environment. Free expression is the essential fuel of a university, yes, but expressions of freedom that repress the rights of others to learn is as authoritarian as any administrative directive.
I hope the Gallaudet community finds its way back to a rational solution to its dispute soon. Gallaudet is a remarkable institution, and the world needs Gallaudet University and all universities to be places that model healthy debate and effective solutions, not more dysfunction. All of us in higher education need to think more deeply about our responsibility to contribute to an end to the seige of our schools, so that the real work of education in forming a better society can proceed more quickly.
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