Thomas Jefferson wrote: “If the condition of man is to be progressively ameliorated, as we fondly hope and believe, education is to be the chief instrument in effecting it.”
I believe he was right: I believe in the value of higher education, such as that offered at Virginia Tech and other colleges, for a free and advancing society. Just as the education of women is a key to a demographic transition in developing nations, higher education is a key to the advancement and maintenance of all nations. I believe higher education is a symbol, no – more than that – an embodiment in bricks and mortar, of the hopes and dreams of the people it serves. Higher education represents a hope for many people, young and old, that they may attain a better life for themselves, their families, and society at large – not just as measured by common material wealth, but by personal achievement, by satisfying their thirst for knowledge, and contributing to the global body of knowledge. And I believe I am not alone in this belief – we send our children to school in the hope that they may someday attend college, and we save our pennies and pay our taxes so that our children and the children of others may attend.
And so I have mourned with others around the world as we watched the tragedy at Virginia Tech unfold. As an alumnus of Virginia Tech and a college professor, I feel allied with those touched by the horror. And vulnerable. But I believe another reason for our shock and grief – one that is distinct from the expected shock and grief of war – is that the light of hope embodied by a college was dimmed, momentarily. An attack on a college campus attacks our collective hope and belief that our condition is to be progressively ameliorated. But because I believe that Thomas Jefferson was right, I also believe that college campuses must not bow to reactionary pressures to close their borders or treat every person entering the campus as if they may do harm to others. To argue that multiple students should be carrying concealed weapons on a campus is to argue that every student attending class, and every faculty member administering grades, would need to worry even more about the concealed weapons also in the room with them. And to expect that police should be poised to shut down a college campus that receives thousands of people daily, is to argue that university faculty should be outnumbered by campus security.
I can think of nothing else that would diminish more the light of hope represented by our college campuses, and so diminish the progress in the human condition attained since 1795, when Thomas Jefferson also wrote that “light and liberty go together”. I believe we would only compound tragedy if we permitted our college campuses to operate in fear, rather than hope and a shared belief in the value of education.
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