Opinion: Students should be challenged, and humbled, by knowledge

Youth is arrogant. The photograph on my phone is proof.

In the photo, a young man hangs by one hand off the side of a skyscraper. He’s using his other hand to take a selfie.

This is called roof-topping. It’s a kind of sports photography that encourages adrenalin junkies to climb skyscrapers and take photos of themselves in various states of daredevilry, like doing handstands on a window ledge 50 storeys up or pumping off a couple of one-armed chin-ups while hanging over an abyss.

As best as I can tell, roof-topping is a young man’s sport. Eventually, I suppose, gravity humbles every climber, even those who don’t fall to their deaths.

But for every roof-topper who quits the sport, another younger photographer will volunteer to take a vertigo-inducing selfie.

This is the education system in miniature. Young people enter arrogant and ignorant, and through an encounter with hard surfaces – teachers, knowledge, truth – they leave humbled and informed. Then comes the next class of show-offs.

The constant arrival of new students leads to repetition. Every incoming class arrives with the same questions, and a teacher can either complain about this fact of human development or else glory in the pattern that develops over the years.

Indeed, many classroom ‘innovations’ exist to keep teachers from becoming bored, not to keep students engaged. For first-year students, the course material is brand new. They’re seeing it for the first time. It needs no dressing up, no innovation.

But if a course is boring, it’s probably because it lacks content. If that’s the case, educators should deliver what students want: A challenging climb and hard surfaces. Authoritative knowledge and wisdom. And not cool new educational tech or dumbed-down lessons.

But as I say, youth is arrogant. The young will indulge in the profane, thinking they’re the first to take such a risk. They will test authority and demand to know if accepted truths are in fact true. This is good. It signals a desire to know reality.

Against this backdrop of youthful curiosity and boundary testing, we can understand why free speech is so hotly debated on university campuses, and why universities need to do more to cultivate free expression and open inquiry.

An example might help explain this point.

Last month, a group of students invited Faith Goldy to speak at Wilfrid Laurier University. Goldy is a journalist who used to work for the conservative Rebel Media and who has made statements that many have interpreted as the wonderings of a white supremacist. (Goldy, for instance, has treated “the JQ” – the Jewish Question – as a matter of serious consideration, rather than as anti-semitic twaddle.)

Predictably, Goldy’s presence at Laurier brought out protesters who pulled a fire alarm to keep the event from happening.

I have not spoken to the students who organized the debate but we can assume from their choice in speaker that they wanted to test boundaries. If they wanted a thoughtful right-of-centre perspective, they could have picked a wiser, more knowledgeable conservative than Goldy. But this event wasn’t about discussion. It was intended as a high-wire act. It was scholastic roof-topping.

In the end, little was accomplished, except to show that most people at Laurier, including university administrators, didn’t care to hear Goldy. In a way, that’s too bad. For if the talk had been permitted to continue, students – for whom everything is new – would have quickly discovered how little knowledge or wisdom Goldy and those like her have to offer.

Students seek confrontation with authority of law, mores and knowledge so they can know for themselves which authorities deserve respect. It’s a pattern that repeats with every incoming class.

Universities have an obligation to encourage these confrontations, to develop courses, hire teachers and invite speakers who set students on a collision course with hard truths.

If they can do this, students can have what they seek: to be challenged and humbled by knowledge.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

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