While he was attending Morehouse College in 1947, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a paper in which he observed that “most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education.” Even as a student, he saw the university as a place where people could be taught to “think intensively and to think critically” and learn how to “sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”
Over half a century later, the misconceptions King observed at Morehouse College seem to persist at too many modern universities. How many students agree that education should inspire intensive and critical thinking? How many graduates leave equipped with the ability to dispassionately consider evidence and separate truth from error?
Such skills would be welcome in dealing with the controversies that are exploding across campuses all over the country. At the University of Missouri, protesters recently compelled Timothy Wolfe, the school’s president, to step down due to perceived racial insensitivity on his part. Yet The New York Times rightly noted in an editorial that Wolfe’s resignation “will not resolve the racial tensions that forced him from office.” Anger and resentment over racial issues have continued and even intensified at the University of Missouri in the wake of Wolfe’s departure. The approach of many of the protesters seems quite far removed from King’s recommendation to sift and weigh evidence to actually solve the problem.
And consider Yale University, where the Intercultural Affairs Committee (IAC) issued Halloween guidelines that counseled against costumes that were “culturally unaware and insensitive,” which prompted a letter from Erika Christakis, a faculty member who found the guidelines were too restrictive and that children, on Halloween, ought to have “room” to be “a little bit obnoxious.”
What followed was not an intensive or critical debate, but a storm of outrage from hundreds of students furious that Christakis would dare to express such an opinion. Her husband, Nicholas Christakis, who also works at Yale, found himself at the center of a public protest as students yelled things like “You should not sleep at night” and “You are disgusting.”
Is this truly the best way to debate our differences? Is this kind of behavior representative of King’s ideals of higher education?
The point here is not to minimize the reprehensibility of racism in all its forms or to delegitimize appropriate opposition to it. Students are correct to stand against injustice, but their methods should consider the principles outlined by King when he was a student himself. Every campus would benefit from a little less outrage and a little more critical thinking.