After the “Defend the Constantin Core” march on Friday, I had an inclination to Google Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” After all, this essay inspired the most influential movements and protesters of the 20th century, from Ghandi to Martin Luther King Jr. These protests have inspired contemporary movements like the Women’s March and the March for Science, which have, in turn, inspired our own little show of activism here at the University of Dallas.
I have always found Thoreau a little hysterical: Running off to Walden Pond to shed the burdens of society, he seemed to have lost all faith in his fellow man.
I expected to find a quote along the lines of “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” or “An unjust law is no law at all.” Instead, the quote that glared out at me was the following from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”:
“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
These words from his most famous essay have the ring of truth. Did we not see this in the case of Socrates, or King or even of Christ Himself? They were just men who were imprisoned, even put to death, by unjust regimes. They broke the laws and expected to pay the consequences.
Thoreau himself was imprisoned for not paying taxes because he did not want to fund the Mexican-American war, and he was quite unhappy when someone paid them off so he could get out of jail.
Marches are not civil disobedience. They are shows of solidarity, perhaps even demonstrations of strength. The show of numbers is an opportunity for people to protest without facing the consequences of breaking the law. Nowadays, most people who march peacefully aren’t breaking any law at all; they are merely exercising their right to assembly.
This is the trend into which contemporary protests and the march for the Core fell.
“Come rally together to defend the fundamental characteristic of our beloved university. … Your presence is greatly needed as we must make a loud stance against the administration’s attempt to institute the New College. Come one, come all,” the event’s Facebook description states.
Like many of the marches today, the march for the Core was not even protesting an unjust law. It was protesting a decision that has not even been made. It was an idealistic stand that was trying to make a statement about the very meaning of an education.
Some might say that they are protesting the unjust firing of Dean Parens, but everything surrounding the circumstances of such an incident is unsubstantiated rumor. If someone were to come forward with evidence of any injustice, that would be the truly courageous thing to do.
But a march for the Core is inherently contradictory.
Yes, I get it. I like waving signs. I care about the Core. We all care about the Core.
But if we do, we should act like it has actually taught us something: that sacrifice is more powerful than rebellion, that wisdom goes hand in hand with prudence, that discourse and dialogue are more important than people giving speeches and talking past one another.
On this last point, I am glad to say that everyone at the march listened respectfully as President Keefe took questions from the gathered marchers. They raised their hands and waited their turn to speak. They stared at the ground like sheepish children getting lectured. I doubt that any of them changed Keefe’s mind about anything.
If we truly believe that sacrifice is more powerful than rebellion, then what sacrifices should we make to save the Core?
The reason the New College was proposed in the first place is because of the financial difficulties of the school. Are alumni willing to sacrifice money to donate to the school? Are students willing to sacrifice better facilities, extracurricular programs and financial aid, all of which Keefe mentioned in his address to the marchers?
My guess is that even if we were willing to make these sacrifices, many of us are not capable of giving that much to the school, or of affording it without financial aid.
This brings me to the relationship between wisdom and prudence.
It is wisdom to wish to preserve the Core, to make it a requirement for all people who receive an undergraduate degree from this school. It is wisdom to want to provide everyone who attends this school with not merely job training, but an education, a formation as a human being who is part of a greater tradition.
But is it prudent to allow the school to close down, to prevent anyone else from ever receiving the UD Core curriculum, in an attempt to defend it? If the New College is the only way to save the school, does it not necessarily follow that it is the only vehicle through which to preserve the Core?
The most important thing with which we should be concerning ourselves is finding a way to help the school without compromising its values. And if that is not possible, we should be asking ourselves which is better: to die for a cause or to live humbly for it.
As Mr. Antolini so aptly notes in J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”