With all of the stories I keep reading about the stupidity, bigotry, intolerance and hatred of free speech coming from student bodies on campuses across the country, I feel that it’s time to share one of my own.
I attended a small, though at that time regionally prestigious, liberal arts college which prided itself on its self-policing student body in regards to infractions against academia and infractions against the student body. What this meant was that the college had essentially set up student run star chambers around which pernicious rumors always surrounded whenever they were required to convene. Academic infractions, largely in the form of plagiarism or cheating on tests, was dealt with by a body called the Honor Council, while infractions against the student body (often more nebulous cases of violating some student handbook or disciplinary issue) was dealt with by a body called the Social Council. While the former had a veneer of respectability and objectivity (proof of plagiarism is often a fairly objective matter), the latter was a place where students could play the cruel judicial tyrant with a feigned demeanor of detachment while acting out on petty grudges or, worse, acting out of ignorance and stupidity.
As with any body that involves organized groups and cliques, the key to securing power for your organization rested in getting persons involved with the key student-wide groups who were responsible for various activities around campus or enforcement of campus rules. The fraternity* in which I was a freshman member was, at that time, on double secret probation in regards to a toy pellet gun that was being handled on the DL by a Dean despite the existence of these star chambers, so it behooved us to get members of our otherwise upstanding and respectable organization** actively involved with these organizations (not just the star chambers, stuff like the Student Activities Council, which controlled some of the student entertainment budget, too).
I ended up being elected to Social Council. Woohoo!
The first case we convened on involved an art student who had accidentally started a small fire in his room; he had been working on something involving melting wax, but had forgotten to extinguish a candle he’d used. The candle was sitting on a wooden crate box. The candle burned down, the wooden crate box’s top smoldered a bit, and the smoke alarm in his dorm room went off. Now, one of the first things that told me something was wrong with these councils was that they were unable to look back at past cases and past rulings decide appropriate punishments. The problem with Roman law is that when code is established yet there is no prescribed punishment for the violation of said code, punishments can vary wildly, unfairly and absurdly. Had my college allowed us to use a common law model, we could’ve looked back and said “Well, these are the instances in our college’s illustrious institution whence a student almost-but-did-not burn down his dorm room and here were the punishments proscribed.” Alas, the fate of this young man lay in the hands of a dozen of America’s best and brightest adolescents, power mad with their first tastes of adult civic authority.
I suggested that the condemned (for he had admitted his guilt and merely awaited the decision of his peers to decide his fate) be made to test and replace the batteries of smoke alarms around campus (assisting maintenance personnel) and perhaps give a talk to freshmen at next year’s orientation about dorm room fire safety.
My suggestion was shot down; it was harsh; it was extensive; it was cruel and unreasonable; it didn’t make sense.
The wiser among us had an idea, however, and decided to act upon it following this train,
-What had he been doing to cause the fire?
-He was working on art in his dorm room.
-We have an art studio that is open late for student to work on art.
-He shouldn’t have been working on this in his room, it was dangerous.
-He shouldn’t be doing art in his dorm room.
The decision was rendered: the student, an Art major, mind you, was no longer allowed to work on art in his dorm room.
Needless to say, I was aghast at the decision and pointed out the patent absurdity of stating that this student, or anyone, should not be allowed to “work on art” in their dorm room, but I was a voice in the wilderness. The council made their decree, and I resigned in protest.
The student dropped out of college before the year’s end (I cannot absolutely ascribe this to the above events, though I cannot help but think that they played a part).
Most young adults today, even those considered the most intelligent and capable, are completely incapable of rational and sensible self-governance. This event, now over a decade behind me, sealed this impression in my mind.
*:Probably not what you’d think when you hear “Fraternity”. We were theatre & english majors, actors, gamers, anime nerds, players of D&D and Magic. Instead of having token nerds, we had token dude-bros.
**:We didn’t have pledges, we didn’t haze, we raised money for St. Jude. We WERE, however, mildly persecuted by certain faculty members because our organization had been traditionally Zionist.