Truly Special

Last September, Dartmouth's student body president, Noah Riner, delivered a convocation speech to this year's freshman class. When he was through, he had ignited a much-needed debate on what it means to be truly educated. Riner spoke about the importance of character. He told incoming freshmen something that they had probably already heard from others: They were "the smartest and most diverse group of freshmen [ever] to set foot on the Dartmouth campus." Then Riner told them something they probably hadn't heard: Without character, none of these qualities matters. He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., who once said, "Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education." He cited examples of Dartmouth grads who had done terrible things, not because they were stupid or incompetent, but because they lacked character. Then, as an example of character, Riner, the son of a Baptist minister, cited—who else?—Jesus. As he told his audience, "the problem is me; the solution is God's love: Jesus on the cross, for us." As you can well imagine, Riner's use of Jesus didn't go over too well. One student said he was "appalled and disappointed" at Riner's actions. Others added that Jesus himself would have disapproved of Riner's invoking Him at the convocation. Jesus was the offense, but as one student noted, had Riner instead "espoused the virtues of Muhammad, Buddha, or any other religious figure, he would be applauded." Most of the controversy in the press has centered on the question of religious discrimination. That is unfortunate in a way because it detracts from what Riner considered to be his main point: the neglect of character in higher education. This is a big issue. Can anyone seriously doubt that our colleges and universities are neglecting and even undermining character? Take the example of Bates College in Maine. In Maine, as in the rest of the country, drug use and underage drinking is illegal. Yet in spite of the school's stated policies, a young friend at this prestigious liberal arts college requested to live in what the school calls a "chemical-free" dorm to avoid the drugs and alcohol. And Bates is not unique. Most colleges and universities have given up trying to regulate student morals. Even more than that, what the Weekly Standard calls the "Left University" promotes and embodies the "cultural radicalism of the 1960s." This radicalism values "alternative lifestyles" to the point of denying the existence of norms. It emphasizes personal autonomy to the point of viewing any limits as "oppression" and "tyranny." Well, no wonder, then, that the word character makes the folks at Dartmouth and elsewhere nervous. American colleges and universities today cannot educate for character because they have abandoned the necessary values and standards. And they have abandoned the long, rich tradition of the university, which has historically been, first, to develop character, and second, to promote learning. Instead they are doing what Teddy Roosevelt called the most dangerous thing you can do: giving people the power of an education with nothing to keep them from putting that power to evil use. By pointing this out, Riner has done us a great service, forcing a debate on the purpose of higher education. It's long overdue.  


Chuck Colson


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