Can You Buy Utopia?

When I was applying to colleges, I knew I wanted to attend a liberal arts school. Not only do I believe in the philosophy of a liberal arts education, I also knew I would be more likely to find like-minded people at such an institution. Liberal arts schools are usually progressive and socially liberal.

So what happens when you confront the ugly prejudices of the real world at a supposedly ideal institution? Unfortunately, I have been watching this unfold on my own campus.

I am a freshman at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. I have met incredible people and absolutely love my classes. I know I made the right decision when I chose to attend Wheaton College.

Wheaton prides itself on its honor code, which governs all aspects of student life. We emphasize acceptance and diversity on our campus. Which is why it was so shocking to receive an email about anti-Semitic graffiti on campus. I was shocked and appalled. Like many other students, I had a difficult time believing Wheaton students could have committed the act. We have had issues with people not affiliated with Wheaton vandalizing our campus in the past. However, as people pointed out, it was highly unlikely that someone outside the Wheaton community would know which house was the Jewish life house.

Many people have expressed their anger at the fact that they pay money to attend an institution where these acts occur. I believe that liberal arts colleges are overly idealized, which leads to many problems when acts like this occur. First of all, the institution’s desire to sweep such occurrences under the rug, for fear of negative publicity. College admissions are a business that rely heavily on reputation. I cannot help but think of the recent news about the serious mis-handling of rape cases at Amherst College. I heard many people say, “Thank god I don’t go to Amherst.” I’m sure equal amounts of people removed the school from their college list afterwards as well.

The problem isn’t Amherst College, and it isn’t unique to Amherst College either. When people think that all liberal arts schools are utopias of acceptance and progress, it creates a dangerous dynamic. Schools work to keep up this image so they can attract students. This means attempting to silence instances of prejudice on campus to protect their reputations.

The best policy is always transparency. There needs to always be an open dialogue about complicated issues on campus. If you attend a liberal arts school and think this does not apply to school, you’re dreaming. Schools can always work to be fully inclusive. If even one person feels threatened, there is much work to be done.

After the vandalism on campus, Wheaton held an open forum to discuss the event, and things students and staff could do to combat it. Many other events that made students uncomfortable were mentioned. While few clear solutions were reached, one important consensus was agreed upon; there needs to be constant and open dialogue about the nature of our campus.

You cannot pay money for an inclusive community. It is built through discussion, action, and time. Signing an honor code doesn’t make a community either. It is the willingness to engage in difficult conversations and actively build solutions. If we keep pretending liberal arts schools are perfect models of liberal utopias, we silence anything to the contrary. This inhibits growth that could seriously improve the quality of liberal arts institutions.