The recent campus absurdities at Missouri and Yale have justifiably been met with derision by critics and real concern by parents who are paying a great deal of money to send their children to college. But some conservatives like Senator Marco Rubio have gone too far in suggesting that these examples demonstrate that college education is fundamentally flawed.
The proper response to bad ideas and behavior is good ideas and behavior—not an abandonment of their pursuit. This would perhaps not be too serious if the argument was confined to a handful of overly sensitive students on the one hand, and opinionated writers on the other. But as the cost of education has risen, partly because of the intervention of government spending, political candidates have focused on education.
Most recently, in the Republican primary debate, Senator Rubio argued that we should stop stigmatizing vocational training because, after all, welders make more than philosophy majors. Rubio was right to argue that vocational education should not be stigmatized. However, he’s wrong to shift that stigma on to philosophy majors. The events at Missouri and Yale show us why.
Students at Missouri are incensed because a handful of students allegedly committed racist acts and the school president did not immediately make them feel better. Yale students are furious because a professor suggested a ban on potentially offensive Halloween costumes was a bad idea, thus creating the possibility that students could be exposed to culturally insensitive costumes. In both cases, the students responded by demanding that the offending parties apologize and resign for disagreeing with them.
These students are wrong. They don’t recognize the value of legitimate intellectual disagreement. A Yale undergraduate demonstrated this in a rant against her professor, “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!” These students think college exists to make them feel better about themselves, not to educate them and force them to consider ideas that differ from their own. To the contrary, learning to wrestle with ideas intelligently and appropriately is foundational for a college education.
But the failure of many colleges to teach students well does not mean that education has no value. It means many of our colleges are failing to fulfill their most important duty, which is not merely to help a student get a decent paying job, but to teach them how to think and live well, privately and publicly, as moral individuals and good citizens. However, not every college has failed at this duty as badly as Yale and Missouri have.
My own institution, Grove City College, is rightly proud of the fact that 95 percent of our students have a full-time job or are enrolled in graduate school after graduation. But we also believe that college is more than a ticket to a higher paying job. For example, in my introductory American Government course, we don’t just discuss the amount of debt or what we are spending our increasingly scarce dollars on—we think seriously about the moral implications of continuing to spend beyond our means as a nation and thereby indebting future generations. We talk about the outbursts of the students at Missouri and Yale and consider more meaningful ways to deal with differences of opinions. I challenge my students to consider views they disagree with on their own merits, and to evaluate their own assumptions against a standard of truth higher than the personal experiences of an 18-year-old.
My students are not afraid to disagree with each other, or with me, and I regularly challenge them to clearly and articulately defend their views. I can do this because the administration gives me the freedom to do so without fear of losing my job for offending a student, and the school can give me that freedom, partly because they refuse to take any federal funds.
The students at Missouri and Yale should be roundly criticized for their behavior and fundamental lack of moral seriousness. But the proper response of critics, and especially of parents, is not to abandon higher education, but to place their students’ education in better hands. In short, the proper response to bad philosophy is not to abandon the study of ideas, but to learn philosophy better.
These students get education wrong because they think it’s about making them feel better. Senator Rubio gets education wrong because he thinks it is about getting a better job. He’s wrong to point to salary as the most important metric for judging merit. After all, if we applied that same metric to other areas we should all be preparing to vote for Trump in a few months. I suspect the good senator would find that philosophical conclusion a bad one.