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University Graduation

University Graduation

by William H. Benson

May 8, 2014

     On Tuesday, April Fools’ Day, several dozen Dartmouth students gathered in the office belonging to the university’s president, Philip J. Hanlon, and insisted that he respond to each of the items listed on their Freedom Budget. The students demanded a faculty that included more women and minorities, gender-neutral housing and restrooms, and harsher penalties for sexual assaults.

     In their Freedom Budget, they wrote, “We seek to eradicate the systems of oppression” that exist on the Dartmouth campus. These systems include “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism,” and are “deployed at Dartmouth as forms of institutional violence.” Someone pointed out that these were “broad and somewhat inconsistent demands,” as if several action groups had joined in this sit-in.

    President Hanlon responded with a campus-wide email. “Academic communities rest on a foundation of collaboration and open dialogue informed by respectful debate among multiple voices.” A Dartmouth spokesperson explained to the students that the president raises funds for the university, but others address student concerns. Nonetheless, the students spent the night in the president’s office.

     Linda Chavez, the syndicated columnist, said last week that Hanlon wants to focus his attention on “the campus fraternity system, and his solution—a committee to look into ‘high-risk drinking, sexual assault and inclusivity.’”

     Chavez suggests alternatives: expel all underage students tested with “a blood alcohol level of .05,” and expel those who buy alcohol for minors. “As for the assault,” she writes, “stop the drinking, and there will be fewer sexual assaults,” because drinking and assaults run in tandem. She suggests that student orientation should include “some time exploring the negative consequences of hooking up.”

     Her suggestions resonate with wisdom, but where is the willpower and the leadership on a campus?

     Chavez then makes a perceptive comment: “The promiscuous culture rampant on university campuses leads to a coarser atmosphere and diminished happiness.”

     Really? Has American culture arrived at the same point that Socrates argued 2,500 years ago, that “knowledge of the good,” and acting in the moral and virtuous way, would lead to feelings of inner worth and happiness? He contended that if people wish to harmonize their souls and produce a divine-like state of inner tranquility, then they must exercise control over their inner desires.

     Despite his good heart and his wisdom, the authorities insisted that Socrates drink—not alcohol—but hemlock, the poison that ended his life.

     Last week in the New York Times Book Review there appeared a review of William D. Cohan’s new book, The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of our Great Universities. Cohan argues that the scandal resulted from two programs that Duke instituted in the 1980’s: “import expensive academic talent,” and “pour a deep river of cash into the athletic program.” Cohan points out that no one understood then that the two were “on a crash course.”

     To their athletes, Duke’s coaches passed out hundreds of dollars, supposedly for their meals, but the athletes in turn scorned academic studies, were “openly hostile” to intellectual discourse, and turned to “booze, gambling, and the hiring of desperately poor women for entertainment.” The lacrosse team members were the worst offenders.  

     A high school graduate can find reasons to avoid the university: the cost, the extensive promiscuity, the binge drinking, and a liberal philosophy that condones and blesses every idea or action imaginable.

     But a student can name some good reasons to attend: Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Einstein, the periodic table of elements, anatomy, botany, language study, business, and music. Each area of study outweighs all the negatives.

     As for the cost, consider Ben Franklin’s quote, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance. If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”

     Graduation exercises begin this weekend, and the fortunate ones, the happy ones, will graduate. They found within themselves the courage to shove aside for a few hours everyday the junk—the trashy ideas, the immoral behavior, the pursuit of perpetual intoxication, and the excessive emphasis upon sports—and concentrate on their textbooks, their notes, their term papers, and their examinations.


     A diploma indicates a laser-like focus, determination, willpower, and un-swervability. “The coarser atmosphere” and its “diminished happiness” failed to lure them permanently into its trap, and so this weekend they are well-pleased. Instead of a sit-in, they will walk across a stage and receive a diploma.