College Students Need Better Lessons Than 'All of Your Emotions Are Real'
President Reveley’s letter took advantage of a good moment to evaluate what should be the animating principles of higher education.
One ideal colleges should pursue is building their students’ character. Some of the letters above leaned that way when they talked about “respect” and “compassion.” They, however, leave out many other virtues such as honesty, humility, self-governance, diligence, perseverance, and courage. The idea that “all of your emotions are real” is actually detrimental to students. An emotion may be “real” but discreditable. Pleasure at the suffering of others, self-pity, and smugness can be real, but emotions should be valued, not because they are real but because they are right. Colleges’ indulgence in this area leaves students where they already are emotionally and doesn’t challenge them toward self-examination and growth.
But the principle of wanting a leader who embodies good character and sets a virtuous example for Americans is the right instinct. Donald Trump’s election clearly poses a challenge in this regard, as the election of Hillary Clinton would also have done. Students and faculty will need to reckon with the flaws of elected leaders now and in the future.
Freedom to pursue the truth is another ideal toward which higher education should strive. Colleges foreclose debate and free inquiry about matters such as race, immigration, and sexuality when they take sides and expect students to follow suit. President-elect Trump has criticized political correctness—which is one reason so many people found his views a refreshing new wind ruffling up the stifling atmosphere of cultural taboos. Trump’s frequent tactlessness, however, strikes many people as going too far the other way.
In many of his statements, however, he overcorrects with tactlessness.
This is the perennial problem for colleges and universities as well as all Americans: how to balance civility with freedom. For decades higher education has embraced a form of civility often to the neglect of free expression. President-elect Trump has embraced free expression often to the neglect of civility.
We need both principles in great measure. Ignoring either side does a great disservice to the quality of public discourse.
As the nation receives a new president, colleges should equip students with the civic mindset they need to live as citizens during an administration with whom they may strongly disagree. This means training them to evaluate arguments and facts, to stand up for their beliefs in ways that obey the rule of law, to debate ideas with respect for their opponents, and to be resilient when faced with someone with whom they disagree. So far, many colleges have laid a poor foundation for this kind of teaching. But it’s not too late to do better.
President Reveley at William & Mary shows us one way to do better. Administrators and faculty members can also take the lead by hosting, instead of safe spaces, debates and conversations between campus conservatives and liberals. The hosts should make it clear that these events are to be conducted fairly and civilly. Student groups such as the University Union at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst already do this. Now it’s up to the adults to follow their example.
Ashley Thorne is the executive director of the National Association of Scholars.