Crisis and Opportunity on Campus
by Winslow Myers
The war in Gaza has generated far more heat than light on American college campuses. Students shout past each other as they bear helpless witness to the injustice and absurdity of the latest spasm of violence in the Middle East.
The protests provided an opening for politicians to examine challenging questions about bias, free speech, and student safety. Instead, there was superficial posturing and playing “gotcha” with college presidents who are doing a difficult job.
Larger questions around the ultimate purpose and value of a college education remain insufficiently examined. The ivory tower cannot presume isolation from the world crisis of values of which the Hamas-Israeli conflict and the wars in Ukraine or the Sudan or elsewhere are a festering symptom—students sense this more than anyone.
For both Hamas and the present Israeli government, the deaths of so many innocents have been a means to exercise raw power rather than move toward genuine resolution of a fiendishly difficult conflict. In Israel’s case, the immediate goal seems to be to re-establish deterrence, and in Hamas’s, to disrupt the gradual accommodation of surrounding Arab nations to the legitimacy of Israel’s existence.
Violent and cynical means on both sides are themselves at war with the ends of authentic resolution. The indiscriminate nature of Hamas’s attack and the equally indiscriminate Israeli response has only set back long-term security in the region.
Unfolding events provide an opportunity for dialogue on college campuses, including between Jewish and Palestinian students. To ask Palestinians and Israelis sheltering in-country from bombs and rockets to sit down together in small groups and share food and stories in order to build mutual understanding would be a bridge too far in the present chaos—yet it has been done? effectively here in the U.S. And colleges could, and sometimes do, provide occasions for something similar to happen on campus.
The education of the complete person, the enlargement of what was once called character, by a combination of formal curriculum and the informal experience of campus culture will always remain challenging.
For decades there has been talk about a crisis of the humanities. As students flee the liberal arts, classes in the business and computer fields expand. College is expensive, and students want to be able to monetize their learning, or at least have a fighting chance to pay down burdensome loans. It is hard for college administrators to resist trends that, left unaddressed, could shut down their institutions altogether.
Still one can’t examine too often what ought to be some of education’s bedrock goals, including how to mold active citizens, people who are informed, responsive, authentic, present, inclusive, and responsible. Education in that larger sense is a good in itself, a means toward a good life, beyond just making a good living.
This is a challenge not just for the humanities, but for education as a whole, including STEM, as indicated among other things by apathetic and misinformed voters, shallow politicians unequipped to cope with huge challenges like AI, leaders who choose authoritarianism and war over the difficulties of building peaceful democratic structures, and a materialist culture which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Pure scientific research for its own sake, like threatened humanist disciplines, faces its own need to demonstrate its utility. But there are projects which speak to such a depth in us that no justification is needed. The Webb observatory, which simultaneously looks outward into deep space and backward in time, because of the time it takes for the light of stars and galaxies to reach it, was designed by engineers from 14 countries. The Webb shows what we can do when we cooperate toward larger ends rather than warring with each other.
The Webb brings into even greater focus the magnificent unfolding of the universe through a series of emergent stages, from pure energy, to matter, to life, to conscious life reflecting upon itself. The universe story confirms the reality that all of us, including Arabs and Jews, come from a single origin. The story also magnificently confirms the resilience of life on earth, which has persisted through billions of years of challenges.
Albert Einstein said that we cannot solve a problem on the same level of consciousness that created the problem. The connective tissue across all time and space revealed by the Webb points toward this new level of consciousness, a world where “us” against “them” is subsumed by the truth of interdependence. It will become the task of education to help students explore this larger context and apply its implications practically to all our problems.
Students face a future of environmental, demographic and disarmament crises laid on them (sorry) by previous generations. The quality of their collective response will depend upon their seeing that all the wars on the planet, including the present horror in Gaza, are an absurd distraction from listening, sharing, working things out with each other and stewarding the natural systems that sustain us.