Letter to the Editor: Student behavior shows college is failing to educate

Following the violence on March 2, Middlebury College officials and college President Patton would shift blame to “outside agitators,” and encourage us to believe this was a one off. There is, however, every indication of a more systemic problem at the college. I am a graduate of Middlebury College, class of 1978. My wife taught in the language department. We are both very dismayed by what we can only describe as the intellectual intolerance of the academy.
Having started life as strong liberal progressives and slowly evolved to independent voters, we have learned to listen to and respect points of view very different from our own. The ability to debate points of view with which we disagree is the hallmark of the educated person. Middlebury is failing in its job to educate. Given the opportunity I would have been very interested to hear Mr. Murray’s presentation and his defense of his ideas.
I recently came across an interesting reference to his work: J.D. Vance, in his best-selling autobiography “Hillbilly Elegy,” writes compellingly about the dysfunction and decay in Appalachia, where poor kids and entire communities struggle. He read Murray’s book as a 16-year-old who grew up with a mother addicted to pain killers and a host of “step-fathers.” I quote Vance on Charles Murray: “…‘Losing Ground,’ another book about black folks that could have been written about hillbillies, which addressed the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state.”
Some may not want to entertain that our government encourages social decay, but Vance sees it differently. Raised in “hillbilly” country, he graduated from Ohio State and Yale Law, he is credible for his first-hand experience of poverty and decay, rather than second-hand conjecture.
The Middlebury community’s churlish reception of Charles Murray belies staggering lack of intellectual seriousness. Perhaps “Hillbilly Elegy” should be on the required reading list for all incoming freshmen. A hallmark of liberal arts education should be about being exposed to other points of view. I watched the Youtube video. Anyone who cares about our college should as well.
My take: the only thoughtful, serious voice was that of the student representing the AEI club, which had invited Mr. Murray. He was the only one up to the occasion. And he was persistently heckled, a rudeness tolerated by the administration. Permission granted to continue and take it to the next level. With her turn at the podium, President Patton seemed most concerned to distance herself from Mr. Murray (and his not-left-leaning views?).
“Allow me to state the obvious, we are a left-leaning campus.” (Really?) She repeated points about diversity while stating that she had already made up her mind about Mr. Murray: “I profoundly disagree with many of Mr. Murray’s views.” Which ones? Why? Nothing about open mindedness, encouraging independent, critical thinking, about respecting ideological diversity. The general impression: I’m here because “my schedule is free,” we allowed this speaker because it’s our policy, I don’t like the idea that he is here any more than you do, I know some are here to engage in “non-disruptive” protest, “please do.”
She then retreated, abdicating any sense of responsibility for the ugly behavior that followed. Permission granted. Again. We need to ask why this violence happened at Middlebury, a private college with a proud liberal arts tradition. Is there something askew in the culture at Middlebury? Has Middlebury lost its way? Is it a “left-leaning campus?” Is this the terrible but logical conclusion to accepted arguments that controversial points of view, triggers, micro- (or is it now nano- ?) aggressions are themselves a form of violence that justify violence in return?
Middlebury should find its way back to the foundation of liberal arts education. Van Jones, a Democrat and CNN contributor, speaking at the University of Chicago, “You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous.” He could have been speaking about Middlebury. The school’s leadership needs to search its soul and ask how it can get back to the principles of a true education — exposing students to a multitude of points of view and experiences, including those that might be offensive, especially those that might be provocative.
It’s fine to condemn the violence but please don’t blame it on “outside agitators.” Let’s see if the administration or board does anything to change the culture that led to that violence. What is plain is that the administration’s brand of I’ve made up my mind liberalism is not compatible with Middlebury College’s proud tradition of Liberal Arts education.
Steven Nothern
Scituate, Mass.

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