Postrel: "Turning College into a No-Thought Zone"


Former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel (archive) has a great column up at Bloomberg View.

It's about the ongoing degradation of the university as a site of actual discussion, conversation, and argumentation about the things that matter most.

After summarizing an insane but sadly representative case of students getting in trouble for daring to discuss a petition condemning the National Security Agency outside a designated "free-speech zone," Postrel writes:

A public university is a type of public forum—not as open as a public sidewalk or park, perhaps, but nonetheless government property subject to the First Amendment. A state college campus is different from the purely private property of the Googleplex or a Walmart parking lot. To pass constitutional muster, therefore, any restrictions on speech have to be both content-neutral and "reasonable" to accomplish a narrow government purpose. The government can't play favorites, and it must have a very good justification for any rules it imposes….

Educationally, speech-zone restrictions don't further the purposes of a state college. They undermine those purposes.

Contrary to what many people seem to think, higher education doesn't exist to hand out job credentials to everyone who follows a clearly outlined set of rules. (Will this be on the exam? Do I have to come to class?) Education isn't a matter of sitting students down and dumping pre-digested information into their heads.

Higher education exists to advance and transmit knowledge, and learning requires disagreement and argument. Even the most vocational curriculum—accounting, physical therapy, civil engineering, graphic design—represents knowledge accumulated through trial and error, experimentation and criticism. That open-ended process isn't easy and it often isn't comfortable. The idea that students should be protected from disagreeable ideas is a profoundly anti-educational concept.

Read the whole piece, which outlines a court case being organized by The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, of which Postrel is board member).

What I respond to most strongly in the piece is the defense of college and university—all types and all levels—as a place where thinking happens. One of the most disastrous misconceptions of the current moment is the idea that college exists as a credentialing agency, where kids drudge their way through classes and parties until they are ejected into whatever career they chose when they were freshmen or sophomores. Nothing could be further from my experience (all of it at state schools) and nothing could be less compelling, from a student, parental, or taxpayer perspective.

Last year, Reason magazine sponsored a forum titled "Where Higher Ed Went Wrong," that featured Glenn Reynolds, Richard Vedder, and Naomi Schaeffer Riley, and others. In my contribution, I argued that critics on the left and right who talk about college in terms of getting a job are missing the point.

You should be going to college to have your mind blown by new ideas (read: whole fields of knowledge that you didn't know existed until you got to college), to discover your intellectual passions, and to figure out what sorts of experiences you might want to pursue over the next 70 or so years. And let me suggest that it's precisely the broad field of inquiry that takes the most abuse for being totally impractical—the humanities—that students should seek out most. Understanding history, literature, art, philosophy, and the like won't make you a better citizen, or a more responsible employee, or a happier camper, but those disciplines will give you the tools to figure out who you are and what you want to be if and when you grow up.

That may be the first-generation college student in me talking—I'm still amazed that I had the opportunity to spend a relatively inexpensive four years (college can still be done on the relative cheap unless you're a status-obsessed idiot) to learn that there is a whole world out there beyond the one in which you grew up. But if college is really just a high-end vo-tech program, it really is useless and should go away already.

Postrel's Bloomberg View piece reminds us that college isn't simply a degree but a process, one that ideally inculcates not just knowledge but thinking skills and some passion about the world in which we live. We forget that at our peril and the future will never forgive us.