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What’s the Purpose of College Anyway?

Colleges have abandoned their most basic purpose: preparing students for a career and helping them gain a broader sense of the truth.
Travis Barham
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University auditorium with blue and red chairs

It’s the start of a new college semester — with leaves starting to turn, football stadiums filling up, and a new generation taking their seats in classrooms all over America. Thus, this is as good a time as any for our nation’s students, parents, and school administrators to ask themselves one crucial question: What exactly is the purpose of a college education?

Recent years have made it increasingly clear what the purpose is not.

While college is supposed to mature students and prepare them to be productive members of society, too many of our universities today seem bent on indulging young people’s worst instincts and teaching them how to tear society apart.

Consider, for instance, the University of Pittsburgh. Last spring, two conservative student organizations — the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the College Republicans — hosted a debate on gender ideology, scrupulously complying with the university’s policies for such events. The two groups even agreed to pay $2,000 to cover the cost of security.

Less than a week before the debate, university officials suddenly upped the cost of that security to more than $18,000 after issuing a press release predicting the event would be “toxic and hurtful for many people in our University community.” When a riotous crowd showed up for the debate, spurred on by school officials’ bad publicity, administrators made it clear they’d do little to prevent violent protests and urged the two sponsoring groups to cancel the event.

That’s not unusual. One recent study of 250 Princeton students found that 75% of those polled think shout-downs are acceptable, 43% believe blocking access to an event is fair play, and 16% approve of using violence to stop a speech. A full 48% said a presentation should be prohibited if anyone in the audience might be offended.

So much for free speech or for encouraging students to reasonably discuss issues, exchange ideas, and peacefully disagree. If you don’t like what the other person has to say — stir up a mob. That’s one more lesson tuition buys you on campuses coast to coast.

Indulging — if not outright inciting — mobs would seem to undermine another purpose of universities: providing a calm, safe setting in which students can learn. At Virginia Commonwealth University, invited speakers from Students for Life of America (SFLA) were shouted down, called Nazis, drowned out with obscenities, and finally physically attacked by students opposed to their pro-life message — all while campus security and Richmond police officers stood idly by. Officials said they were “disappointed” things turned out that way, but it took a demand letter from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to persuade them to invite SFLA back for a “do-over.”

Swimmer Riley Gaines suffered a similar attack when she spoke on women’s rights at San Francisco State University, while guest speaker Kristen Waggoner, president and CEO of ADF, was driven out of a Yale Law School classroom by a group who screamed obscenities and threatened violence. (Yale later invited Waggoner back to speak again.)

Given that none of the universities involved expressed any serious regrets over what happened, the administration’s message to incoming students would seem to be: “Enroll here — if you agree with us!”

Colleges have also abandoned their most basic purpose: preparing students for a career and helping them gain a broader sense of the truth as it applies to a variety of subjects and study areas.

Many university professors today no longer believe there is such a thing as truth. A colleague of mine recently listened as the dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Loyola University of Chicago explained how truth is always relative — because everyone’s lived experience is equally valid and irrefutable. One student raised his hand.

“So, does that mean if I say the Earth is flat, it’s true?” he asked.

“It does for you,” the dean said.

The student was understandably stunned. What’s the point of spending tens of thousands to learn that whatever you already think will suffice? What’s the point of taking exams if any answer can be correct? What’s the point of gaining knowledge if reality is ever-changing and up for grabs? And what’s the point of a university if professors have no more insight than the students to teach what’s true, what’s important, and what’s real?

There’s not much point at all, really. But if the “lived experience” you want for your son or daughter is exposure to politically correct, culturally approved ideology, strictly controlled and now violently enforced, with no room for discussion, contradiction, or reality — well, America’s modern university campuses may offer just what you’re looking for.

If not, it may be time for you and some of your fellow alumni to take a long, hard, and thoughtful look at your beloved alma mater — and at what your continuing support is enabling it to do.

Travis Barham
Travis Barham
Senior Counsel
Travis C. Barham serves as senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, where he plays a key role with the ADF Center for Academic Freedom.