Give Class of 2006 a Chance to Create its Own Syllabus

September 7, 2002 | By Jane Eisner

They have flooded the nation’s dormitories during the last few weeks, about 1.3 million of them, armed with enough technological equipment to computerize several small nations, and enough promise and potential to lead this very large one.

The students entering four-year colleges and universities for the first time this fall (among them my oldest daughter) grew up believing that minivans were present at creation and Madonna was always an aging celebrity. They think the Evil Empire is a celluloid enemy and Big Brother a television show.

Those of us who know otherwise can joke about the carefree myopia of youth, but we ought to get serious about this: These young men and women are the first to pass through the gates of higher education in a post-Sept. 11 world. And they will help define what it means to be an educated citizen. That definition has never been written in stone, and periodic attempts to broaden or massage the canon are always controversial.

But usually the cycle of change comes gradually, in stages, the way dormitories that once posted stern chaperones at the door to keep out members of the opposite sex now welcome everyone. It takes a generation or two to shift from curfews to coed bathrooms.

The terrorist attacks—because they struck at our very civilization—sped up the cycle of change and exposed our academic vulnerabilities. Suddenly, it’s not enough to read Shakespeare; one must study Islam. It’s not enough to learn calculus; one must understand the intricacies of global markets.

This new, demanding syllabus startles some traditionalists, frightens others. That fear was at the heart of the ridiculous (and futile) lawsuit filed against the University of North Carolina for assigning its students a book on the Koran. It’s a fear of the unknown, a fear that the familiar will be replaced by the foreign—when, of course, true education is all about venturing into other, unsettling worlds, trying them on in your mind, and growing stronger for the effort.

These attempts to censure what is taught, and who is teaching, are really a denigration of who is being taught. Those who screamed that learning about the Koran would harm UNC’s students don’t believe in the students themselves, don’t believe they can think critically and with discernment.

The critics who sent hate-filled messages to UNC Chancellor James Moeser—“May you find a packet of anthrax and a pipe bomb in your mailbox,” read one—are actually tossing epithets at America’s next generation. You’re not civilized enough to learn about competing cultures, they mean. You’re not sure enough in who you are to learn about someone else.

Wrong. The generation now unpacking computers and extra-long bedsheets is arguably the smartest, savviest, most engaged and optimistic one to come along in decades. These “Millennials,” write Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book “Millennials Rising,” “have a solid chance to become America’s next great generation, as celebrated for their collective deeds a hundred years from now as the generation of John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Joe DiMaggio and Jimmy Stewart is celebrated today.”

And if this generation decides that the study of the Muslim world is as important as the study of ancient Greece, maybe we should expand our definition of the educated citizen.

In explaining the decision to stick by the Koran assignment, Moeser said of UNC’s students: “We put our trust completely in their desire to read, to think and to learn.”

At this crossroads for our history and culture, the class of 2006 should be given the chance to show they’re worthy of that trust.