College campuses have always been curious enclaves, removed from the hurly-burly of normal life. The concentration of young students, fresh from the restraints of their childhood homes, exposed to new ideas and groups and exercising their personal freedoms for the first time, makes for a kind of hot-house atmosphere where superheated emotions and actions can come to seem almost normal.
That’s a big part of the reason why colleges are such a fertile ground for protests. It’s been that way since at least the ’60s. The reasons for the protests can change — when I was in college in the late ’70s, after the Vietnam War had ended and the economy was in the dumper, some students worried about their job prospects were actually agitating to let the CIA back on campus to recruit students — but the fact of protests is almost an assumed part of the college experience. If you’re not going to protest in college, you probably won’t protest anything, ever.
So I’m not worried about the existence of protests at colleges. Nor does it concern me if college presidents decide to resign in the face of protests, as happened at the University of Missouri. I obviously don’t know the full back story of what’s been happening at Mizzou, but I doubt that a little unrest, standing alone, would be sufficient to topple a university president. If it was, the president probably wasn’t that suited to serve as the ultimate decision-maker in such a stilted environment.
What bothers me, though, is that the recent incidents at campuses like Missouri and Dartmouth indicate that students don’t really seem to understand the full range of freedoms that we are entitled to exercise in America. In a well-publicized incident at the University of Missouri, students congregating in a public space prevented a journalist from taking photos and exercising his indisputable First Amendment rights to do so. (Even worse, the student actions were apparently supported by an assistant professor of mass media studies, who obviously should know better.) More recently, at Dartmouth, a Black Lives Matter demonstration saw protesters entering private study spaces, disrupting, physically harassing, and shouting obscenities at students who were studying for exams rather than joining in the protest.
These incidents, and others, make you wonder what students are being taught on college campuses these days. If an assistant professor of mass media studies doesn’t understand how the First Amendment works, then perhaps it’s not the students’ fault, and college administrators need to do a better job of hiring instructors. It also makes you wonder about how media-savvy the current crop of student protestors are, too. The old-line protestors of the ’60s craved every bit of media attention because they understood it would help their cause; they would no more have tried to block a photographer than they would have listened to Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians in their dorm rooms. Were the Mizzou students afraid that Mom and Dad might see that they were out on the quad, camping in tents?
The key point of it all is understanding of, and tolerance for, the rights of others. We tolerate student protests for various causes because they have the right to assemble and advocate for whatever changes they wish. But journalists have the right to cover those protests and take photographs without being blocked, pushed, or harassed, and students who exercise their rights not to join the protests of others have the right to make that decision without being pressured or verbally or physically intimidated.
Some people are calling today’s college students pampered crybabies. That may be true, but it’s only true in the sense that it has always been true for the last 50 years, where college campuses have increasingly become a kind of zone of alternate reality. (Visit a college campus and look at the recreational and social facilities that colleges are building to attract students, and you’ll see lots of tangible evidence that inevitably will lead students to think they’re special.) The real problem isn’t pampering, it’s education — and the protestors ultimately will learn a very hard lesson when they leave the rarified land of ivory towers and encounter the hard realities of a world in which others aren’t going to hesitate to enforce their rights. The first college agitator who thinks he can stage a sit-down strike to force his unpleasant boss into quitting, or bully his co-workers into supporting his approach to workplace politics, is going to find himself with a pink slip and an abrupt career change.
It would be better for the students and their future lives and careers if they learned that lesson while still on campus.