Six months ago the The University of Missouri in Columbia was no doubt best known for its world class School of Journalism (arguably the first school of its kind in the word), its Division One Tigers (their mascot is named Truman, after Harry), and a host of diverse, famous and infamous alums, among them Virginia’s Tim Kaine, Brad Pitt, Ken Lay, George C. Scott. Sam Walton, and Tennessee Williams.

At press time “Mizzou” seems on the verge of becoming the poster child for what promises to be a long hot fall, winter and spring of protest on campuses all across the United States and (if 1968 serves as a precedent) all the western democracies.

First and foremost it has set an example, praised in some circles, condemned in others for successful social action in the face of what was perceived by students and faculty alike as a campus culture of pervasive and persistent racism. 

The struggle wasn’t against the most obvious and most mean-spirited manifestations of the mindset all too familiar to most if not all of us who have been paying attention at some point during any period of American history within living memory.

It struck out at racism in its most perfidious and difficult to address form, the racism made manifest in what could and should be the culture in which it was least likely to thrive:  a modern, first-class American university devoted to preserving, protecting and passing on to future generation the highest of all its academic disciplines.

Second, Missouri’s football team and coaches demonstrated once and for all the power of collective bargaining, and (sadly) what really seems to matter on all too many campuses.  Months of protest created little or no change until, and only until, football with all its emotional and economic power, was brought to bear

Third, and for a liberal most distressing, was that a problem so obvious, so well-studied, so destructive of everything that both liberal democracy and liberal education stands for, would in this day and age require such antithetical means to address such well-meant ends.

Some scholars have applied the term “vindictive protection” to the attitudes displayed. 

What our conservative friends tend to brand and condemn as “political correctness,” most of the rest of us see as simply “good manners.”

There now exists, however, a broad gray zone in which even good manners can be and are seen as “offensive.”

One of the main functions of a college or university, in our view, is to explore and test the edges of that cyclically expanding and contracting gray zone

A university or college that doesn’t expose its students to people and ideas and behaviors that they may find offensive, insulting or even traumatic, is no university at all.

Protecting students from exposure to what are now often termed “mico-agressions” doesn’t help at all.  The goal should be to equip students to live in a world in which people and ideas that offend them are both inevitable and addressable; to know the difference between perception and reality;  and to be able to understand and handle both.

This next academic year will see us elect a new President.

What happens on campuses all across the country will affect that election in ways we haven’t seen since the 1960’s.

Let’s hope Missouri becomes a poster child for not only the problems and forces at play in a world in which nothing is hidden  . . . but for the triumph of the spirit of reason that lies at the heart of any great university.

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