The Hechinger Report recently published a piece regarding rural college students feeling “overwhelmed on big campuses.” California State University, Chico is targeting rural students and working diligently to address their needs. A worthy and noble effort to be sure, but Cal State Chico has nothing on West Texas A&M University. Cal State Chico is taking a different approach than WT. They want to “change the narrative” for public Universities by creating special identity groups, clubs and organizations of/for rural students. Identity groups are the narrative of public higher education, quite possibly its chief failing. Instead, students need to be treated with dignity and respect and valued above all else for their individuality as human beings created in the image of God. Challenging for some, but adherence to such a simple principle amplifies the worth, importance and dignity of each, rather than separating students into identity groups to create influence. Instead, the sanctity of every person that emphasizes the personal development and liberty of thought should be the gold standard at every public university. It creates a stimulating learning environment and fosters a “true” campus community.
The overlooked and much more important issue is rural students bring their values with them if institutions allow them. Not everybody likes the word rural, but when talking about values it is easy to exchange the concept of “rural” with the notion of “founding” or “western” values, embodied in Jeffersonian views on Natural Rights, and popularized to some extent by the incorrectly attributed advice of Horace Greely, “go west young man,” as one of the multitudes of complexities regarding Manifest Destiny. These thoughts are vital when it is recognized that the values of trust and family life, hard work and regard for others, personal responsibility and free will, patriotism and the exercise of virtue in public and private, the free and open exercise of faith and ultimately strong individualism, are frequently found in pioneering populations. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, when visiting West Texas A&M University on the occasion of the establishment of The Hill Institute, recognized these values are increasingly sought after by many people around the nation, and were historically, values with which Americans identified stating, “This is the America that all America used to be, and it should be again.”
Patrick is not alone in his observation regarding the importance of these values in the operation of a republican form of government established by individuals who possess the right and opportunity for the exercise of free will. William von Humboldt writing in The Sphere and Duties of Government thoughtfully perceived the job of government, “The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.” In other words, individual citizens, in the exercise of their free will to attain their aspirations and vision for their own lives, create the “richest diversity.” Authentic liberalism at work, not the 21st-century faux liberalism that substitutes ideology for individual responsibility.
John Stuart Mill in On Liberty identifies three forms of individual freedom. In terms of human liberty, he wrote, “It comprises, first, the inordinate domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive way; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.” He continued, “Secondly, the principal requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow, without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.” He added, ”Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons uniting being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.” Freedom is absent in societies and groups that do not respect these principles.
Clubs and organizations, structures intended to support groups of people, no matter how valuable their purpose for belonging and retention are not a substitute for the foundational notion in a free society that will, “Let each, become all one is capable of being,” as the motto of the State University of New York articulates. Coalesced and guided opinions around one ideology or worldview isolated in identity groups are subject to becoming a form of “groupthink,” and can diminish individual liberty, responsibility and action. Anything that supplants the freedom of individualism or individual liberties in any organization of any type is of little value and is questionable, especially in organizations of the state. Clubs and interest support groups like those established at Chico State or WT have value. Fraternities, sororities and centers of ministry for various faith groups are not afforded state funds yet they have value. Any of the clubs or support groups established under the concept of the freedom of assembly may be valuable for individuals who choose to participate, “belonging to something larger than self.”
At West Texas A&M University, we hold as first purpose the value of individual liberty, personal choice and the freedom to pursue aspirations and interests that satisfy the souls of the people we serve, bonded to intellectual and vocational acuity.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at https://walterwendler.com/.