Last week, the Dean of Arts and Science asked professors to read to their classes a letter expressing his deep concern about the offensive conduct of “a small group of students,” citing financial damage due to donors’ disgust, damage to additional government funding due to the negative image of the University and potential personal damage since those convicted on criminal charges face a criminal record and “culpable students face non-academic disciplinary charges from the University”—a joke since discipline is not in the hands of the University but of many of the perpetrators themselves. I find the emphasis on money, reputation and repercussions for the criminal few to be superficial preoccupations compared to what is at stake here for the many: the poverty of moral education.
The letter’s emphasis on the “small group of students” made me wonder whether the administration’s concern is restricted to those who would bash a car and light it on fire, or whether it extends also to the thousands who would cheer them on. Humans generally being a cowardly lot, the few who bend signs and relieve themselves on strangers’ lawns would not do so without complicit back-up from very many enablers. Students regularly engage in offensive behaviours if such include noise, an offense which begins at one’s property line, and vandalism, at least if living in a garbage-strewn environment constitutes vandalizing the neighbourhood.
Neighbours-be-damned street partying is itself an offense to civility.
Coddling assurances that culpable behaviour is the province only of the very few divert attention away from our real problem: a widespread undergraduate culture of entitlement, insightfully nutshelled in comments about saveourneighbouhood.ca in the Sept. 16 online edition of the Journal by the aptly named “Claire.” (Internet anonymity allows me to erect “Claire” into arbitrary spokesperson for her cohort.)
Claire’s sense of history begins with her own: “It is ridiculous for someone to move into the Queen’s student ghetto expecting a nice quiet family environment.” The irony is deadly for all the quiet families displaced over the years by obnoxious students. Claire’s sense of her own rights defies all legal boundaries: “This ghetto belongs to the students.” Claire’s bottom line stops at her own petty pleasures: “Bottom line is that students like to party.” Claire’s moral consciousness stops where she does: “This website is trying to shine a negative light on the lifestyle that we all enjoy a lot.” No, Claire, not everything is all about you. This website is sticking a mirror in your face to help you see what you are doing to others.
Claire demonstrates nicely the danger with Queen’s endless rhetoric about the “global leaders” it is producing and the “small group of bad apples” causing the problems, which is that even students whose bottom line is partying end up believing it. As Claire writes, “If [Don Rogers] really meant well he would get the REAL sketchballs and thieves and criminals out of the ghetto rather than trying to get the LEADERS OF TOMORROW [their caps] in trouble.” The sad reality is that there are as many Claires among us as there were Queen’s students on Aberdeen Saturday night, drunk in the drizzle, thumbing their noses at the rest of Kingston in aggressive proclamation of their “right to party” at everyone else’s expense. (And just you wait. They’ll be expecting—and probably getting—congratulations for not doing too much damage this year.)
On the topic of the party tab, another online commenter, “Some Dude,” is our valedictorian here. You’ve heard him many times; he believes, conveniently citing no evidence, that “the money Queen’s students pour into this city every year is much, much more than the cost of the actual upkeep of the ghetto” so that “damages [inflicted by students] are most often offset by the economic boom Queen’s students bring to the city,” thereby displaying the rock star mentality that trashing the hotel is OK as long as you’re rich enough to pay for it. Some Dude actually believes that it is “landlords who are supposed to maintain the cleanliness of their properties,” as if maid service is included in the rent.
The administration’s exclusive emphasis on financial and self-interested—rather than moral—reasons for ending damaging behaviour directly enables Some Dude’s misguided mindset, as the logical converse of those kinds of reasons is that, if you’ve already got enough money, you can go on inflicting damage.
Such lack of moral awareness was illustrated with nauseating irony early in the day on Saturday when my friend, a Congolese refugee of meager means, went door-to-door in the ghetto offering to collect empty beer bottles to put them to good use, providing the revelers the easiest imaginable way to make a small but meaningful difference in the world. He didn’t stay long. At the very same time as students listened to him present his petition, they were aggressively smashing in the streets the very beer bottles he had come to salvage.
Moral behaviour can be taught to those to whom it does not come naturally just as are math and grammar and logic. The consequence of Queen’s abdication of moral education has tangible implications. Claire is seeing one thing right: “The reality is that the Queen’s student ghetto is the reason why some students select Queen’s.” The voices of students more clear-minded than Claire are drowned in the yells of all the partying yahoos. In the prevailing culture, it makes one too unpopular with too many people at too many levels to denounce culpable ignorance and to suggest that Queen’s negative image is not just an image.
Adèle Mericer is a professor of philosophy at Queen’s.
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