I have recently been noticing a subtle increase in the amount of American colleges and universities that are banning tobacco on campus. The list of tobacco free colleges in the US is extensive, and the trend seems to be growing. Whether it is because of the health issues of the users themselves, the innocent bystanders, the environment, the cigarette factory workers, or the exploited tobacco leaves, a large portion of American college students want to see tobacco banned from their campuses.
Though private institutions have the right to place bans on almost anything within reason, a unique irony exists when something fundamentally based in individual choice–like tobacco use–is banned by a college.
The liberal world of academia is often an avid proponent of tobacco bans on American campuses, and on the surface this is not surprising. Yet, this same world is also the first to send the gifted minds of its members to battle stations as even more voices argue that the “traditional” college experience is irrelevant. Consider this magnificent piece written by Christopher B. Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. He argues for the importance that the college experience can play in young adults’ lives. College, he explained, is more than just a four-year transfer of information. The graduating senior is often only physically the same as the freshman that initially applied.
The educated graduate is an independent learner, able to seek out answers to whatever questions arise, and able to direct his or her own learning in accordance with the challenges that life presents in the circumstances of his or her own life. The maturation of the student – not information transfer – is the real purpose of colleges and universities. Of course, information transfer occurs during this process. One cannot become a master of one’s own learning without learning something. But information transfer is a corollary of the maturation process, not its primary purpose.
Therein lies the contradiction: when it comes to smoking, the “independent learner”–the American college student, with the ability to mature and personally “seek out” answers to life’s questions–is being given an ultimatum by the school’s administration about how to treat his or her own body.
The critically important ideas of individuality and intellectual exploration, things that should be fostered during college, disappear when colleges begin telling their students how to live. Is individual choice not considered part of the human experience? Is free will inherently human? Apparently it is not, if the student would choose something that contradicts the university’s sensibilities. “The university should be a place for reflection for the young to explore areas of the human experience,” says Professor Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University. Professor Delbanco may not agree with tobacco bans, and Columbia University is actually not one of the hundreds of American colleges to ban tobacco use on campus. Nevertheless, the “reflection” young men and women strive to attain is compromised when schools expand their efforts to control individual thought and behavior. The irony of this relationship academia has with two oxymoronic ideologies is intensely clear. I can smell the rich mahogany of my professors’ shelves filled with their leather-bound books on the subjects of free thought and choice.
I am aware that not all college professors are as left-leaning as the ones I have come into contact with, but the majority of my life experiences within the academic community have been controlled by a left-of-center mindset. We are all products of our experiences, and mine naturally call for me to assume that the majority of authority figures, including professors, are going to disagree with me. Disagreement is normal and necessary in academic life. However, it becomes much more difficult to tolerate when colleges begin to further the essentially liberal policy of making personal decisions for its students.
Conservative student activists should continue to fight unreasonable policies made by both public and private institutions of higher learning. Simply because a private university may have a right to enact a “free speech zone” or ban tobacco use doesn’t mean that such a policy is right. Such policies should be fought diligently, if only to protect the dignity of the American college and what it is supposed to stand for. Maybe you’ll get some professors to change their minds. It has happened before.