Case in Point


This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“Counter vision of university environment” (letter: Observer, CWU student newspaper)

Student Newspaper of Central Washington University
November 30, l995

The recent (Nov.16, 1995) column from Dr. Sarah Shumate, Vice President of Student Affairs, concerning her vision of the CWU academic community stimulates a reaction from me.

While generally I find no fault with her desire for a respectful learning environment at Central, the underlying tone of her comments was not educationally innocent or benign. Indeed, I perceived a threat: It’s my way or the highway.

Dr. Shumate believes that the focus of Central should be, on one hand, to engender in the students “personal growth,” self-development and “character,” and on the other hand, to extirpate all “language or actions that demean, defile, degrade or violates the human dignity”—all in a civil and positive manner which cherishes “full, fair and respected participation of all members.”

The problem is, she fails to tell us how she is going to evaluate these value-laden objectives. Furthermore, if one doesn’t share her view of Central’s mission then one will not be “tolerated,” will be branded as “oppressive,” and will have “disciplinary sanctions” meted out to the offender.

It seems that Dr. Shumate is pressing us to subjectivize our university environment to conform to a current political agenda that stifles the very free speech, free expression and free academy upon which the entire university enterprise is founded.

My counter vision for the university is that the individual pursuit of truth and excellence in any field of learning and the capacity to appreciate the greatest achievements of intelligence and genius should be the purpose of higher education at Central.

I would suggest that Central does not have a therapeutic responsibility to its students, nor must it be committed to good fellowship, amicability or “social development” among the student body.

Vice President Shumate would seem to subjectively designate certain domains of inquiry “off limits” since these inquiries might unsettle or discomfort us, or shame us in our ignorance and stupidities. The academy, by design, discriminates against ignorance and intellectual darkness and aggressively promotes knowledge and intellectual enlightenment.

This process, if it’s conducted with vigor and diligence, will hurt student feelings, make students feel inferior and unworthy, and demean students’ efforts from time to time. Every one who has ever been a student knows this. Being a student is not always a prideful endeavor. That’s the nature of the intellectual progress from barbarism to civilization.

In the quest for rationality, truth and objectivity, Central should be a place where the “unthinkable can be though, the unmentionable can be discussed, and the unchallengeable can be challenged” (C. Vann Woodward). As cultural orthodoxies change, what is pleasant to hear will change as well.

However, from time to time, when there is a lull in thinking, the discussing and the challenging, the claims to truth and objectivity, if they can be substantiated, will stand on their own merit.

Now all of this core intellectual activity should be done with order, civility and mutual respect. But Central cannot guarantee nor enforce civility if it is to guarantee free speech and free expression in a public institution supported by a free and diverse society.


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