In support of choice

Benjamin Fischberg ’14 recently condemned academic freedom in a Record op-ed (“Rethinking education,” Feb. 22, 2012). Since “students cannot comprehend what knowledge they will need,” he argued, the College should narrow our options so we can only make good choices. I write to rebut this misguided notion. Doubling down on paternalism and further restricting students’ freedom would neither enhance the intellectual climate on campus nor increase the preparatory value of a Williams education.

The paternalists theorize that forcing students into a common curriculum would help us relate to one another. Fischberg suggests that mandatory first-year seminars would make it easier for students to engage in conversations – as if impromptu interactions and spontaneous friendships weren’t already a fantastic part of life in the Purple Valley. But what shape would a “core” curriculum take? What learning lies at the heart of a liberal arts education? It’s easy to throw around platitudes like “critical thinking,” but it is much harder to find unanimity about what studies best embody them.

Philosophy students and faculty could easily claim their field is the most fundamental; my fellow fans of political science would happily steer a college-wide requirement towards creating informed citizens; those captivated by biology surely think all students would do well to obtain a deep understanding of how life functions. The reality is that these subjects and others all shape how we think in critical ways. It is a source of strength, not a flaw to be corrected, that we are all drawn to different avenues of intellectual inquiry. The soul of a liberal arts education lies in precisely this sort of diversity, not in exalting whatever singular paradigm some bureaucracy believes should fit us all.

At its core, paternalism pivots on a belief that we are unfit to make our own decisions. If students come to the Purple Valley to acquire wisdom and discretion, how can those who are just matriculating be expected to choose wisely? But I reject the claim that we arrive completely bewildered. Many of us did spend semesters and summers during high school learning what interests us and what does not. And more fundamentally, the same paternalistic logic could be used to criticize any stage of personal development at which we are given increased responsibility: An infant has no experience walking on her own, so how can we possibly expect her to succeed?

In reality, watershed moments of personal growth occur precisely when we find ourselves thrust into waters slightly deeper than ever before and are forced to begin kicking and paddling for ourselves. An undergraduate education is not just about internalizing facts and ideas; it must also prepare us to make our own decisions and take responsibility for them. The College is a safe place to gain this crucial experience, and our time here would be far less – not more – educational if paternalists tried to childproof our learning.

Even if some would welcome greater top-down rigidity, nothing about the freedom we currently enjoy prohibits any who do feel lost from seeking advice and sticking to it. I am certainly not the only Eph who, exasperated, once placed my choice of courses in the hands of a trusted mentor. But to impose new, across-the-board restrictions on student choice by imposing mandatory guidance on us whether we want it or not – like the assumption that anyone who wants to chart her own course is naïve and foolish – is condescending and shortsighted.

I am writing from Oxford, where my fellow Williams-Exeter participants and I enjoy a system with little guidance and almost no cross-disciplinary centralization. If the paternalists think the College is some academic Wild West,  then Oxford must seem like outer space. Here, students must declare majors when they first apply and they rarely stray from their chosen field. If the paternalistic vision held true, the problems that supposedly plague the College should be far worse across the pond: Oxford students must command no intellectual breadth, be ill-prepared for the real world and be unable to carry thoughtful, interdisciplinary conversations. But this could not be farther from the truth. Both the intellectual vibrancy of Oxford and the academic supremacy produced by the College’s current approach empirically refute the paternalist hypothesis.

The paternalists harp on the “wisdom,” “experience” and “perspective” that institutions and faculty can offer. But how can slogans like “Trust experience!” and “The College knows best!” be marshaled to support demands that the College turn away from the academic freedom that has helped make us great? If they believe students are so ignorant that the faculty and the administration must take the reins from us, surely paternalistic students cannot think themselves qualified to publicly admonish those trustworthy adults and institutions. In this way, the fact that Fischberg took the initiative to offer thoughtful suggestions to the College contradicts precisely that paternalistic premise which he set out to defend.

Erich Fromm, a renowned intellectual, wrote, “There can be no real freedom without the freedom to fail.” Fromm was precisely the sort of interdisciplinary polymath into which the well-intentioned paternalists would seek to mold all Ephs – but, as a libertarian socialist, he knew what the College already understands: Making choices for men and women is no substitute for empowering them to decide for themselves.


Andrew Quinn ’13 is a political science major from Lake Forest, Ill. He is currently studying abroad with the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford.

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