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A reflection on liberal citizenship and illiberal education

Last week Kenyon faculty affirmed a resolution on freedom of expression, a topic especially significant in our day and age. We are living in a period marked by the emergence of cracks in liberalism, seen in an American president who treats the press with disdain and in Le Pen, a French politician set on ending the European experiment in favor of a return to nationalism. Kenyon’s faculty chose to reaffirm principles of liberal education exactly when they needed such reaffirmation.

Liberal education, at its core, is about freeing the mind from the popular orthodoxies of any given age. As our faculty asserted, it requires a substantial amount of freedom to question and challenge everything we are told is true. This type of education does not impose morals on its students but rather encourages them to search for truth through reason and argument, trial and error. Furthermore, our healthy exercise of liberal principles within the context of liberal education reminds us of — or rather, provides more support for — the supremacy of these principles within the political community. In short, liberal education helps shape the tolerant citizens required for a liberal democracy.

It’s concerning that at the same time as our faculty is encouraging liberal citizenship, our administration is all but embracing the opposite.

In the Sept. 15 issue of the Collegian, I wrote a letter to the editor in which I questioned whether or not the community cared about the erosion of the Campus Senate’s authority. I argued that the purview of the Senate ought to be restored to what’s enumerated in our campus government constitution — namely, the authority to govern all parts of student life that are neither academic nor immediate safety concerns. One perfect example of such an issue is the restricting of K-card access. Whenever this topic was raised in Housing and Dining Committee — which I will chair next year — I argued that the decision should go before Senate. Our administrators seem to believe otherwise. Is the connection between practicing democracy on campus and thoroughly engaging in democracy off campus not apparent?

The unwillingness to bring this issue to the Senate is emblematic of an illiberalism that pervades Student Affairs; it becomes ever more apparent each time a policy is based on “best practice.” This argument rests on the implicit suggestion that some are the definitive authority on what is best — an illiberal claim in itself. This logic further implies that there is no need to make reasoned arguments for these choices nor be open-minded when a counter-argument arises.

Should we simply listen and accept when President Trump tells us his policies are best practice?

I wish the erosion of the Senate’s authority and K-card access were the only examples of this tendency, but I fear they are just emblematic of the larger problem. Attempts to shape how adult students choose to spend their social lives, limits on a student group’s right to install artwork outside its own lounge window, the removal of the Greek community’s prerogative to govern itself and a seemingly constant requirement of student organizations to justify themselves on this campus all show how the pattern continues. This is not to say that the College should impose no regulations on student behavior, just that those regulations should be minimally restrictive and should not interfere with our freedoms as adult citizens. If there is debate as to whether or not something is too restrictive, the Senate should be there to make that determination.

In short, we as students are faced with a tension between a faculty-led education that aims to remove orthodoxies and an administrator-led “education” that tends to impose new ones.

I will end this, my final piece of the year, with an oft-forgotten quote from our student handbook:

“A substantial area of personal freedom for the individual is necessary if a student is to perceive and voluntarily accept the attitudes and conduct of maturity, that is, if one’s educational experience is to produce the desired results. Reluctant conformity to external pressures will not serve this end. Imposed conformity is not compatible with the rural and isolated nature of the College, where there are few opportunities outside the College to relieve the pressures of academic life.”

Each summer brings changes to handbook policies. All I can hope is that the Student Affairs division recognizes that each time a new policy that attempts to shape student life is put into place — especially those instituted without consent of the Senate — the College moves a step away from its goals as a liberal institution.

Evan Cree Gee ’18 is a political science major from Norfolk, Mass. You can contact him at geee@kenyon.edu.

Evan Cree Gee

Evan Cree Gee ’18 is a political science major from Norfolk, Mass. He probably disagrees with you. Contact him at geee@kenyon.edu.