Academic looks at protest vs. partnership on campuses

Maria Servold

On the day University of Missouri President Timothy Wolfe resigned in response to a serious of student protests, complaints, and strikes, I was set to teach two journalism classes.

As I prepared for the first class, I printed copies of news reports about the events taking place at Mizzou and planned to let my students spend some of their class periods discussing the First Amendment — particularly the freedoms of speech and of the press.

Looking back, I realize how grateful I should be that my mature, curious students were able to have a thought-provoking and, at times, heated debate that day about freedom of speech, the press, race, and the future of higher education in the United States.

My role that day (and every day I teach) was not to preach, point, or persuade — it was to inform, guide and encourage. The real magic in my classes that day didn’t come from me, but rather, from my students, after we read through several news reports and reviewed rights of the press.

I am blessed to have students who are not afraid of ideas and who respect their peers enough that they will neither shout racial epithets nor refuse to discuss another’s opposing opinion. Both of those actions, driven by fear, have no place on a college campus, where a spirit of partnership should reign.

This spirit of working together toward a common goal, seeking knowledge together for the benefit of all, and the pursuit of the true good, rather than the merely comfortable — that is what makes university life special, and the protests at Mizzou were a distortion of this goal.

The students at Yale University who berated a professor for encouraging, of all things, measured thought and maturity about Halloween costumes, and those at Mizzou who rejected a photographer’s defense of the very Constitutional principles that gave them their freedom to hold signs and shout are an embarrassment to those students who take their education seriously. Let us hope that there are plenty of college students who respect themselves and their peers enough to be able to discuss big ideas without finding every opportunity to turn those ideas into weapons, as the protesters are wont to do.

There are several beacons of hope on this count: the recently formed Princeton Open Campus Coalition is one example. Its Facebook page states: “Protecting diversity of thought and the right of all students to advance their academic and personal convictions in a manner free from intimidation.” Let us hope that the group succeeds in promoting liberty.

As for the professors who spend days and weeks trying to find the best way to develop the minds of our college students, our best bet is to show them the respect all human beings deserve. We should especially encourage the free discussion of big, sometimes uncomfortable ideas and, by allowing students to wrestle with these concepts in one of the safest of all safe places, the American university classroom, develop the next generation of great thinkers.

During the heat of the Mizzou protests, one of my students asked: “What ever happened to: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?’ ”

If only student protesters would meditate on that old adage, they may find that it becomes a stronger, better mantra than many other “hashtag-worthy” phrases they scrawl on protest signs. Then, perhaps, we could start having real discussions about big ideas and find ways to improve the lives of all Americans.

Maria Servold is the assistant director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.