On the responsibilities of student-activists

A recent Brown Daily Herald article on students’ struggle to balance schoolwork and activism is making the rounds online. I have mixed feelings toward the student-activists described in this article. On the one hand, insofar as they have legitimate physical or mental illnesses, these students should receive the institutional support to which they’re entitled without question. I wonder how much of these academic difficulties are concerns of first-generation college students who have not absorbed the tacit and explicit knowledge necessary to succeed in a self-directed learning environment.

Moreover, I cannot help but wonder how much of this is content-sensitive. Does it depend on what the students in question are protesting? How much of a difference they are likely to make? After all, many of the comments and objections to the protestors seem primarily motivated by the substance and seriousness of the protestors. They seem to believe that this activist is doing the equivalent of surfing Facebook. But suppose the student identified in the article for losing participation points due to work on time-sensitive work leaked a troubling government memo during that same time? Would their objection be as strong then? I’m not so sure.

There is also a set of issues about fairness. Your initial reaction to this story–it was mine–might be to think how unfair these claims are to athletes, musicians, writers, debaters, and other Brown students who participate in serious extracurricular activities. On further reflection, however, student-athletes do receive institutional accommodations, formal and informal, to balance their commitments. Universities like Brown have made sports a priority in a way they have not with activists, musicians, or writers. Is this fair? Is there something objectively valuable about sport that demands this preferential treatment? s Perhaps these activists’ grievance is that their professors do not take their extracurricular work as seriously as other activities like sports or music.

On the other hand, I also feel that if these student activists had their way, we would miseducate students two ways. The first is about a distinction between personal and institutional responsibility. The second is about corruption and the mission of a liberal arts university.

Educational institutions have responsibilities to their students. We can describe these responsibilities in abstract ways–prepare them for economic success, draw out their wisdom, impart values upon them–but these responsibilities are invariably relative to the institution. Secondary associations, or what Michael Oakeshott calls “enterprise associations,” are guided by a set of values that are not necessarily universal. Their values reflect a particular mission or enterprise. They are often particular, and secondary associations are not necessarily evangelical (though they of course may be). These values shape the way enterprise associations properly treat their members through their primary rules. Of course, enterprise associations of any sophistication will have secondary rules as well–rules for changing the primary rules. But primary rules are the primary business of life in an enterprise association. The point of an enterprise association is not to debate what kinds of rules the enterprise association should have! An enterprise association whose primary purpose was to debate what kind of rules it should have would be a very strange group indeed.


Personal responsibility is partially internal to the primary rules of a secondary association. That is, the primary rules define for what members are responsible. A great example of this is plagiarism. Plagiarism is not a legal or moral crime, and people plagiarize in the professional world all the time (“good artists borrow…”). Universities spend so much time and energy on policing plagiarism because it is a primary rule of the university, reflecting a deeper value of the scholarly process. We can imagine other ways of organizing scholarship, of course, and not totally foreclose the possibility of changing the rules of plagiarism. But it requires a strong argument to change the rules, and the rules have an internal authority.

Personal responsibility in part depends on institutional responsibility, then. However, personal responsibility is not entirely an artifact of institutions, and we make a deep mistake when we treat it like one. We have a pre-institutional understanding of responsibility, and as Dave Schmidtz argues, the dependency of personal on institutional responsibility means we should design institutions that produce personally responsible people. Within limits, of course, we want institutions with primary rules that enable people to take care of their work without having to make demands at the level of secondary rules.

In a pragmatic sense, this is particularly important for a university that educate sstudents for work in a variety of environments. We want graduates who can succeed and thrive in different organizational environments. We also want graduates, of course, who will notice and speak up when the rules treat people unjustly. But we also want graduates who will lead successful lives in the world, not just criticize and try to go beyond it. Universities should not only aim to produce the next Socrates, who we sometimes forget was a royal pain in the ass.

The other problem I worry about is corruption. By corruption I mean the politicization of the university, and specifically a liberal arts university. The momentum today at universities like Brown is to produce scholarship that’s “relevant” and “practical.” Part of this is to the good. But it also involves serious risks of corruption. Now, there is plenty of corruption already in the university, and this point should not be read as a defense of the status quo. The privileged position of athletics, in particular, deserves skepticism, as does the erosion of faculty control over the university. Still, my complaint is against one more source of corruption. It is that the university should be wary of institutional entanglement with activism.

Part of my concern is for the quality of scholarship. It is hard to write for the ages when your research is close to the fight. Partisanship undermines the independence and integrity of research, which is basically the only thing that distinguishes universities from hack think tanks. And partisanship also narrows your informational base. Universities will not produce good research if they are so in hock to the latest activist cause. They will miss the insights that other groups and factions produce, even those who are deeply mistaken.

Part of my concern is for student education. A university education should allow students to see their commitments and values from a more abstract and objective point of view. Even if students will have ideologies (sets of beliefs and values), we want students to be “responsible ideologues.” We want them to understand alternative points of view and their strengths and weaknesses. We want them to have respect for the truth as a regulative ideal. We are not adding to their knowledge if we simply abet and enable their activist projects.

If you committed activist, you should realize there are tradeoffs with other valuable activities (Incidentally, this insight is probably going to make you a better activist…). The job of the university is not to make those tradeoffs disappear, in particular when those foregone academic activities are the constitutive activities of the university itself. It is unreasonable for student activists to demand, merely in virtue of their activism, to receive special treatment.





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