Raising the Standard.

ON CAMPUS: Concerning Student Leadership

Students meet on North Campus. (Photo courtesy of the University of Georgia.)

This editorial first appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE.

THE EDITORS: Formerly, these were called Student Government Elections.

It is republished here in recognition of this year’s Student Body Elections, which will take place on the UGA Involvement Network from March 28th to 30th, 2016.

In the past, THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE has regarded SGA’s activities with thoughtful skepticism, as befits any actions taken by a minority to represent the interests of a majority. Below, we reassess conventional wisdom on student leadership at the University of Georgia.


 

The presidential race still has several months to go, but SGA elections are upon us. The annual process serves as a recurring reminder of the issue of student leadership on campus.

Administrators love to talk about “student leaders” — a term which has also trickled down into student usage. Usually, they refer to a particular ideal: A student leader participates in many extracurricular activities, preferably holding executive office in several campus groups. She belongs to honor societies and has honed her campus-wide network of colleagues and acquaintances. Her resume is polished, her credentials impressive relative to her peers.

Some undergraduates are eminently suited to the position of “student leader” at UGA. We the Editors count ourselves fortunate to know several who have genuinely improved campus through time-consuming acts of service. Indeed, a few of them are members of SGA.

Beyond these notable exceptions, however, we believe that administration is selling a specific product in promoting the idea of student leadership.

The skeptical onlooker could even view their pitch as a weak adaptation of Michel Foucault’s philosophy. In The Use of Pleasure, he writes that every moral action has two aspects — the moral prescription itself and the individual who “defines his position relative to the precept he will follow, and decides on a certain mode of being that will serve as his moral goal.”

Morality is not at issue here. Yet arguably most students in executive positions on campus have not only internalized a top-down message of what is a proper “mode of being” for the successful student leader. They have also decided to follow this prescription for what to say, what to believe, and with whom to associate.

The cynic notes that too often the message which reaches the larger undergraduate population is not, “Are you interested in leadership?” but, “Why indeed aren’t you a leader yet?”

Yet THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE must give those who peddle the idea of “student leadership” the benefit of the doubt: We concede that the popularity of this term is an attempt to encourage undergraduates to become good leaders during their time at the University of Georgia.

Our question then becomes, is this perhaps too much to ask of a four-year undergraduate education? Arguably, exceptional leaders — those whose skills expand beyond a particular place (campus), with a particular population (millennials in their early 20s) — emerge from decades of experience in the workplace, at home, and in the civic community.

In a 2009 plebe address at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Dr. William Deresiewicz — author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life — noted that today our nation suffers from a notable lack of leaders in these areas. He observed, “What we don’t have…are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army — a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.”

Deresiewicz asserts that the key to this type of effective leadership is solitude, the ability for an individual to separate his thoughts and convictions from the ideological trends of the present day. The person who achieves this attitude is able to see beyond transient, contemporary events to a larger view of the future.

Here, Deresiewicz speaks explicitly of the qualities of good leaders. We suggest, however, that the solitude he praises is also the possession of a good follower — and that a university does better to develop this type of person than to create a cookie-cutter “student leader.”

What, then, do we mean by a “good follower”?

Predictably, Plato can help clarify our case for the importance of the good follower to campus and beyond. His depiction of the ideal city in the Republic is not the story of one group of citizens attempting to master another, struggling to keep power and rule over those they have subjugated. Instead, it is the tale of philosophers who, by coming to understand and follow The Good, incidentally fit themselves to assume leadership in the polis.

Intellectual freedom is key here — only by leaving the cave of native prejudice and ignorance is an individual at liberty to understand the principles which order a happy life.

Historically, education in the liberal arts — engaging the question of what humanity is, why we are this way, and what we should be — has helped students earn this intellectual freedom. Above all, the undergraduate who studies the philosophy, science, and literature of the West learns to question convention — to “think critically,” even of the authorities who exhort her to do so. Eventually, she may arrive at the conclusions her forefathers drew, but she does so freely. Her education has given her the tools to discern for herself what ideas — and what people — are best to follow.

In our Spring 2016 issue, THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE remembers a man who achieved the freedom to follow well. Justice Scalia spent decades protecting Americans’ liberty to do good according to individual conscience. He was, in the words of National Review, the Great Dissenter. Yet he was also the Great Follower of the Constitution, the document he pledged his honor to uphold.

We draw a noteworthy lesson from Scalia’s career: That is, the man who was good at following was also well-equipped to lead when his God and his country called him to do so.

So, we find that by training good followers, an institution of higher education may train good leaders as well. If the University of Georgia is able to give graduates the tools to achieve Deresiewicz’s solitude and Plato’s intellectual freedom, it will enrich their futures with far more than a few lines on a resume.

The Editors