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Education is not about you

The cult of the individual threatens to transform academic institutions

A Stanford graduate holds a sign during a commencement ceremony at Stanford University on June 16. Associated Press/Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group

Education is not about you
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It is not only in America that American colleges and universities have been roiled with pro-Palestinian campus protests. A recent news report indicates that there is trouble for overseas campuses as well, including New York University’s base in Abu Dhabi. Apparently there has been quite a crackdown on pro-Palestinian activity, culminating in a controversial ban on students decorating their graduation robes and caps with political symbols and slogans.

It is fascinating that some have claimed that this ceremonial restriction is a serious infringement of freedom of speech. Such a conclusion requires certain cultural assumptions. Holding and expressing pro-Palestinian sympathies are, of course, perfectly legitimate in a free, academic environment. But for this specific limitation on graduation attire and behavior to be interpreted as an egregious attack on freedom of speech rests upon a deeper understanding of what universities are. And that in turn depends upon a broader notion of how individuals relate to institutions.

When I graduated in 1988, all graduands had to present themselves for inspection before the ceremony. Everyone had to be dressed in exactly the same way. We men even had to raise our pants by three inches so that the head porter of the college could make sure we were all wearing black socks. If you were sporting any other color or shade there was a simple and single outcome: You were not going to graduate. After all those years of reading, learning, and debating in classrooms and seminars with no holds barred, the graduation ceremony was to be one of remarkable and absolute sartorial conformity. We were about to belong, and our conformity was a way of expressing that this was so, and that we were grateful for what the institution had given to us.

The reason, of course, was simple: The ceremony was not about individuals expressing themselves. It was about individuals being finally allowed to join the institution. The university was not ultimately a platform for performance. It was a place of formation and, once it had appropriately formed us, we could be released with its imprimatur into the outside, adult world.

I have been struck for many years at how different American graduation ceremonies are. They appropriately acknowledge the achievement of the students who have often worked hard and even sacrificed for their degrees. But that has come to overwhelm the other, more important dimensions of formation, and of gratitude for that formation. That is not healthy.

These students have been raised to think that they are the center of the universe and that their views are the only thing that counts in any situation.

The puerile response of some to the Abu Dhabi restrictions is thus not really the fault of the students. Nor is the problem specifically about the Palestinian crisis. These students have been raised to think that they are the center of the universe and that their views are the only thing that counts in any situation, in any place, at any time. Like those social media types, right and left, who whine on and on about their victimhood, they are merely reflections of the wider Western world. Indeed, the NYU-Abu Dhabi troubles are symbolic of the culture of Western institutions in general. The cult of the individual has come to transform institutions into theaters and to treat those who resist such transformation as if they were dehumanizing oppressors.

And while the tantrums of a few students are not in themselves a threat to civilization, the cultural attitude to institutions that such reflect is of far-reaching significance. A couple of years ago, I watched a debate about whether “trans people” could serve in the U.S. military. One of the participants at one point asked “Why shouldn’t trans people be allowed to express themselves through military service?” That question would have provoked nothing but laughter 50 years ago, when all sane people knew that military service was about anything but individual self-expression. Who wants to be in a combat zone with a group of people all expressing themselves as authentic individuals? Yet today it can be asked in all seriousness and met with no laughter at all. That is the kind of fact that should keep us awake at night.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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