Higher education should be a battleground — not a safe harbor


At the opening of this year’s academic year, I had the honor of presenting this year’s Aims of Education address, a tradition we started in 1992 at Chapman University to welcome each year our newest class of freshman students to the campus. I gave that first Aims of Education address 25 years ago, and here I was on the podium being given a second chance to get it right.

That first address was titled “Welcome to the Fish Pond” and used a fish pond as a metaphor for what a college should be. It was based on my experience throwing small goldfish into a backyard pond and watching them grow prodigiously in size as I fed them every day. The behemoths, at least for goldfish, reached lengths of 10 inches.

The metaphor I used in that speech 25 years ago should be pretty obvious: Just as goldfish grow as the size of their environment expands, so too college students will grow as their environment expands.

So what is it that I’ve learned in 25 years — serving almost all of those years as president of Chapman University — that might have given me a different perspective on the aims of education?

What I’ve learned is that Chapman is anything but a fish pond. When you conjure up images in your mind of a fish pond, it’s a peaceful, quiet and restful place, a place to kick back and lie down. It’s a place not unlike Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond where one can escape from the pressures of real life to be engaged with the life of the mind.

But that’s not what a university’s aims should be, not even close! Universities aren’t quiet places far removed from the rigors of the real world. Quite the contrary, they are more like battlefields or at least they should be. They are battlegrounds for winning wars whose combatants are fighting not over turf but rather fighting vigorously over ideas about life, beauty and truth.

Cultural battles are now being fought in the halls of academe where speakers have been booted off campuses because of strong objections to their highly controversial political and social views. It’s as if the people doing the objecting feel that others need to be protected from dangerous views. That way, I guess, we can all preserve the peaceful equanimity of our campuses. But it’s exactly those views — the ones that may be the most biased, hateful and prejudiced — that should be tested on the battlefield of ideas. We shouldn’t be giving trigger warnings to students where we warn them that the ideas we raise may offend…



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