The High Price of a College Education

Lewis and Clark College

Katherine White
One with Heart Self-Defense Program Coordinator

The price of a college education at Lewis and Clark College right now is a lot more than the cost of tuition, it is personal. The freedom and security students felt a week ago has been shaken by racist posts and threats followed by hate motivated assaults on two students in one night.

They are not alone. Racist threats were made to students at Western Washington University on Yik Yak last week. At the University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe stepped down on Nov. 9th amid protests set off by a series of similar posts on Yik Yak and months of racial and homophobic harassment of students.  Last month at Penn State a gay man was attacked outside a frat house. This follows racist threats made to black students at Penn State last spring which resulted in extra security and metal detectors in place to protect students at graduation.  The Southern Poverty Law Center published an analysis in 2000 that shows hate crimes are becoming increasingly common place in America’s leading universities. *

What is going on?  The ideal is for universities to foster open minded exchange of ideas and beliefs; to provide a safe place for students to explore the possibilities within themselves and the world they live in. The freedom to explore, to question, to see new possibilities, to speak and to listen is inhibited by violence. When fear and intimidation become part of the culture, the ideal is broken.

Violence is rarely an isolated event. It almost always is part of a continuum of abusive behavior. Women have identified this continuum of violence in the setup of sexual assaults; someone is targeted, boundaries are tested and crossed, finally physical and/or psychological force is used to gain control. The setup begins at one end of the continuum with language and behavior that that is uncomfortable but not exactly threatening:  offensive jokes and comments, unwanted physical contact often done with the attitude of:  “hey, just kidding…no big deal.” This escalates into more directly degrading comments and language, then to threats, intimidation, property damage and other abusive behavior chosen specifically to enforce feelings of fear and powerlessness. At the end of the continuum the perpetrator escalates to extreme physical and/or psychological abuse.

The continuum of violence lays the groundwork for the perpetrator to gain power and control and to justify abuse as acceptable. It creates a culture where violence is part of the norm.

What is happening on college campuses are not isolated events, but part of a larger continuum of violence throughout the country. Look at what now passes for political discourse as we gear up for the next Presidential election.

Donald Trump, who fabricates statistics about racial violence in America; who lies about Muslim Americans’ response to 911; who threatens to single out, round up and displace people who don’t look like him,  who objectifies and dismisses women, gay people and transgender people, is 22 points ahead in the polls.

His language and scapegoating ignites and justifies hate. Trump has the right to say what he wants, but we could take away the microphone and hand it to someone who respects the dignity of all people; who speaks seriously about how we are going to live together on this planet, how we are going to create environmental, economic and trade agreements that will lessen some of the pressures which currently underlie much of the suffering and injustice in the world.

If we don’t get serious and stop giving so much airtime to perpetrators of lies, threats and intimidation, we participate in fostering an environment where abuse is justified and violence is part of the norm. There is a high price to pay for that in many ways. This week it cost a lot of bright, idealistic young adults their sense of freedom and security.

They will move forward and find a way to create safety for all students on campus. One of the challenges they may face is allowing themselves to feel their justifiable anger, but not allowing anger to guide the process. Resisting the easy out of scapegoating and seeing that they may have allies in people whose age, gender, or beliefs are not the same as theirs will lay the foundation for an environment where abuse is unacceptable and respect is the norm. Focusing on identifying and eliminating the threat in the most positive way is the way forward.

I am a Lewis and Clark graduate, class of 1979. The four years I spent there shaped my life in many ways. I made life-long friends.  I learned to love literature and writing. I traveled for the first time overseas, to India. College is the place where I began to see the depth of the human capacity to create beauty and to survive adversity. It is the place where I discovered the most important thing about work is that it feel meaningful and bring something positive to the world.

The energy, idealism, and freedom of being young and discovering what is possible and beautiful in the world is what college is about. These students have a lot to do to fix what is broken, but so do the rest of us. What they experienced is a reflection of the larger culture. The price of a college education may be high, but should never be as personal as it was last week.

SPLC. Colleges and Universities See an Increase in Hate Crimes, June 13, 2000