04/25/2013 05:51 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2013

Violence and Education

Recently a student asked me, "Why are you writing to presidents of colleges that have experienced violence?" I answered that I once had a terrible experience when I was acting as an administrator (it involved several accidental student deaths), and I received a few notes from utter strangers. They helped carry me--and indeed, our whole campus--through what remains one of the worst experiences of my life. So, I have been sending notes to those institutions that have experienced stabbings or shootings. There are, as always, too many.

At a recent meeting of the American Council on Education, I attended a session in which presidents talked about their experiences of crisis. One voice was an Illinois president who led an institution that experienced the significant impact of a shooter on campus. It was the first time he spoke publicly of events that happened several years ago. When these terrible events happen, their effect is immediate, raw, and direct. But indirectly, violence affects all educational institutions--and the very institution of education itself.

In the wake of more violence in Boston--and every day in cities across the nation and the world--I feel there is dire urgency to the question: Are we having the social impact we imagined when we built our institutions of higher education?

In Nelson Mandela's youth, when he was tried for the crimes that led him to spend a lifetime in prison, he argued for violence. By the time he emerged from that prison, however, he was a vehement and respected proponent of nonviolence. Regardless of our positions on the particularities of his arguments, we know that destructive violence is one of the enduring problems that we face together as a species. It is represented and sometimes glorified in the Iliad and other of our greatest cultural works. When we teach these texts, we teach a critical assessment of violence and destruction.

But does what we teach temper violence? Can colleges and universities impact the cities and towns in which they are located in ways that reduce violence? Perhaps we should be held accountable for evaluating not only individual student learning outcomes or economic impact to our communities but whether and to what extent we contribute to a more humane world.

How would we even measure that impact?

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