by Bill Schubart Many young people are, by nature’s design, rash and impulsive and in loco parentis educators must often deal with the fallout from their students’ lack of experience. Real-life consequences and good mentoring, mature them over time or they become infantilized adults. The recent protest that turned violent at Middlebury College is likely to be a hard lesson for those students who succeeded in preventing Charles Murray from having to defend his questionable philosophies - at the price of injuring one of their own.
Middlebury President Laurie Patton and Allison Stangar, the faculty member in charge of the event, had sought to promote – not the views of the controversial guest – but a diverse and open learning culture; to encourage civil discourse and support the First Amendment – all fundamental to education.
As a community of learners and scholars, it was entirely appropriate for Middlebury to support the free expression of ideas with which many in their academic community disagreed. Being exposed to ideas one finds ethically or intellectually flawed is intrinsic to learning. In life, we often learn more from abject failure than we do from triumph.
And I understand that the student protesters saw themselves as defenders of their own truths. But in the end their behavior more closely resembled that of jack-booted enforcers and the very arch-conservative ideologues they so passionately revile.
Of course, the real test of Middlebury’s educational rigor will come in the weeks ahead as the campus and the community try to make sense of these events - and determine how to hold accountable those who broke either college rules or civil law – including a number of outside demonstrators, so unsure of their rectitude that they hid behind masks, who joined the college students and contributed to the chaos.
To imagine that obstructing free expression or censoring ideas one finds repugnant will make us a better community is naïve and in itself repugnant. Mob behavior is fascistic, and violence, once ignited, is all but impossible to contain.
Anyone doubting this may recall Kent State, when the turbulent ‘60s reached an ideological climax as twenty-eight members of the Ohio National Guard fired on students protesting the Nixon administration's Cambodian policies, killing four and wounding nine.
Ideas are not dangerous, but people who suppress them – with or without violence – are.
Bill Schubart is a frequent commentator to Vermont Public Radio, where this piece was first broadcast.