The Reigning Paternalism

The University of Delaware residence-life rogram has undergone fierce criticism from inside and outside the campus in the last year, and a revised version of the proposal has come out. (Click here. FIRE has more commentary here.)

It’s a long document, but crucial to it are the Program Goals. There are seven goals the residence-life program will help students achieve:

1. Explore their personal skills, values, traits, and attitudes.

2. Recognize how history, background & culture affect one’s perspectives.

3. Analyze the impact of their actions within the context of their daily lives and the democratic processes that take place in the residence halls.

4. Understand their own and others’ concepts of justice.

5. Develop a personal and career plan that considers their contributions to society.

6. Learn to articulate their point of view while respectfully engaging in dialogues about different ideas.

7. Explore the connections that exist between the concepts of sustainability, personal choice, community, and citizenship.

Conservatives and libertarians may criticize these goals as disguised left-wing indoctrination or thought control, but those charges assume too much here. Not on the part of the controllers, but of the students.

The problem, you see, isn’t ideology, but a misestimation of the capacities of first-year students. We have grand purposes announced — “a personal and career plan,” “concepts of justice,” etc. — and the program sets them up as attainable goals.

But for any person to achieve them requires a fair measure of historical knowledge, ethical understanding, and self-awareness, all of which 18-year-olds lack. Indeed, they won’t be ready for this kind of formation until they have completed their liberal-arts course work. Those courses provide the materials for precisely the kind of explorations the residence-life office has in mind. What Delaware has done is extracted the outcomes of a thorough liberal-arts curriculum and placed them at the start of the college experience.

This is a formula for failure, and when the leaders find their students unable to make progress, what will they do?

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