David Brooks is this year’s commencement speaker for Rice University. As I’ve written before, Brooks’ contradictions and constant rhetoric about how grades don’t matter may not be the perfect fit for a campus of awkward nerds. However, Brooks isn’t just speaking at Rice, but at Brandeis University as well.
In that context, other bloggers have taken issue with some of Brooks’ writings. Notably, Student Activism addressed a Brooks’ column titled “Virtues and Victims,” which Brooks wrote in the wake of the Duke lacrosse rape scandal and the publication of the no longer relevant Tom Wolfe’s exaggerated piece of FICTION, I am Charlotte Simmons. In that column, Brooks laments the decline of social order and character building in universities.
[E]ducators [from] several decades ago understood that when you concentrate young men, they have a tropism toward barbarism. That’s why these educators cared less about academics than about instilling a formula for character building. The formula, then called chivalry, consisted first of manners, habits and self-imposed restraints to prevent the downward slide.
As Student Activism points out, there is a good deal with which to disagree in Brooks’ yearning for this wonderful past.
Yes, college guys can be idiots. And alcohol-fueled, hormone-surging late-teenagers don’t always make the smartest decisions. (Perhaps this is a reason to not let people carry guns on campus). But to refer to rules as “self-restraints” as Brooks does is a sheer fallacy.
Student Activism points to the Berry College Handbook for Women, published by the college’s women’s student government in 1956, as evidence that these restrictions were anything but self-imposed:
DATES — Girls may have dates on Sunday afternoons from 2:45 to 5:00 PM, at parties, movies, and other social events and also at the college store between classes. When girls are coming from the college campus, boys do not escort them farther than the ‘parting of the ways’ which is on the road between the Recitation Hall and Mother’s Building. There must be no dating in out of the way places. Petting is not permitted.
This isn’t self-imposed manners, this is gender segregation. And this isn’t merely a relic of the past. Many current schools, usually ones with religious affiliations, impose strict regulations about men-women interactions. These sorts of rules don’t merely prevent students from learning and growing in an atmosphere of social freedom, but also create a campus potentially hazardous to women. As Student Activism argues:
On the typical American campus of the fifties, students were not taught self-restraint — they were restrained, and they were punished when they were caught circumventing those restraints. If they learned anything about how to behave behind closed doors, it was at great risk, and in defiance of the mechanisms employed to keep them apart. If a female student at Berry College in 1956 consented to be alone with a guy in circumstances that made sex possible, she was in violation of school rules. She was in danger of expulsion. Every man on campus knew this, and that knowledge gave the worst of them great power.
If a woman was treated badly in such circumstances — if she was raped, if she was coerced, if she was abused, if she was humiliated — she was vanishingly unlikely to speak out. And there wasn’t even any way to have an open discussion about what it meant to be “treated badly” — the campus rules permitted no public dialogue about sexual ethics, no opportunity to arrive at communal understanding about how to behave and how to expect your partner to behave, no space in which to forthrightly compare expectations and experiences.
Indeed, without open discussion, there is no way to learn how to act when one finally does leave the imposed rules of a college campus.
One of the purposes of college is to provide a safe zone to learn how to act in the greater world. Imposing strict rules on students merely moves that learning time down the road until after graduation, perhaps until it is too late.
Rice University allows this sort of freedom not just in its student interactions, but in its drinking culture as well. As a wet campus, Rice allows open discussion of and engagement with alcohol related issues. A recent survey by the Rice Drinking Culture Task Force indicated that transfer students feel that the wet campus increases safety. These students, who have seen what other campuses are like, recognize that policies of openness create a campus of knowledge and safety, rather than ones where potentially dangerous activities have to be hidden.
To conclude, there is a reason that campuses don’t have strictly imposed rules anymore. And it is a reason that Brooks should consider.