I got into a fight in class last week. In four years, I’ve had my share of disagreements, academic and otherwise—I’ve smiled agreeably through the Marx sessions of Contemporary Civilization, and as editor-in-chief, I defended 132 editions of Spectator from charges of racism, sexism, and plain old dishonesty. I didn’t think an objectionable point about forms of government had the power to raise my hackles. But I’ve never swung like that before at Columbia. I argued dirty. I was out for blood. I may have invented a piece of French history.
What got into me?
Maybe it was a little Light Blue spirit. For decades, even as our financial and academic fortunes have waned and then waxed again, Columbia has distinguished itself among prominent American universities for its students’ and faculty’s unceasing eagerness to leap into the fray and fight the issues of the day. What Vietnam and civil rights were to the 1960s here was apartheid in the 1980s, expansion in 2006, and ROTC in 2011.
When Jim Gilchrist, the border security activist, appeared on campus six years ago, protesters stampeded him off the stage, leading to a physical brawl between supporters and opponents of his controversial message. He recently declined to make a return visit. “It seems pointless to speak to a campus where witch-hunters of free speech so often dictate, through intimidation and disruption, who will be allowed to participate in liberty and who will not,” he wrote.
Gilchrist probably decided that he couldn’t garner enough attention for himself at Columbia, not that it was time to make a sacrifice for freedom. But the point stands: Do we, in our endless internecine fights over politics and identities and colonies and wealth, make things better? Five years ago, seven students and one professor stopped eating for over a week to change the study of global cultures here. The Global Core remains an insubstantial appendage to the undergraduate curriculum. For half a decade, students, alumni, local residents, and faculty who opposed the Manhattanville campus mounted a massive campaign to limit the University’s ambitions. They failed. Was it all worth it?
Henry Coleman was an administrator at Columbia from 1958 to 1979. The second most significant moment in his lengthy tenure was the Tuesday afternoon when a student, thought to have been a sophomore who had been suspended for bad grades, brought a gun into Hamilton Hall and shot Coleman six times in his chest, arm, and jaw. Regardless of how we judge the hunger strikers, anti-expansionists, or even the 1960s campus occupiers, we acknowledge that they fought for something greater than themselves and their own interests.
But a good cause isn’t always enough. In fall 2009, the College Republicans invited Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who had faced international censure for his opposition to the Muslim faith, to speak on campus. The College Republicans promised he would discuss free speech, not religion. They were misled. In front of a tensely quiet room, Wilders said some of the most profoundly offensive things I’ve had the misfortune to hear at Columbia. Members of the audience who tried to challenge him in the Q&A were cut off.
Wilders’ appearance sparked a small firestorm of debate about anti-Islamic prejudice and European immigration. Nobody on any side learned anything that fall, except perhaps for man’s capacity for inhumanity towards his fellow man. What was launched in the good cause of free speech had ended in a ridiculous show and a fight.
That said, while I’ll try to keep my cool in class, I can’t condemn those of you who wage wars between Broadway and Amsterdam. We are animated today by the memories of fights past. With a cohort of intelligent, engaged students, brought together with brilliant faculty, rich tradition, and history, a good cause produces something greater than the sum of the parts. And I have to think that when classroom chatter turns heated, it’s because we are aware of how hard our forebears here fought for what they believed in. We have an unspoken sense that what we say, do, and think matters because of them.
In late 1814, as British troops burned the White House and an invasion of New York seemed imminent, a group of Columbia College students and alumni organized to protect the city. Marching north from Columbia’s 19th-century campus on 49th Street, the volunteers fortified a part of northern Manhattan that was then called Harlem Heights. Near the dawn of the 20th century, Columbia would move uptown to the site its graduates had defended 90 years before.
A group of SEAS faculty, with no medical training, put Coleman into a borrowed station wagon and drove him to St. Luke’s Hospital. He survived. The campus emergency medical squad that got its first vehicle that day is now known as CAVA. And even after a group of student radicals took him hostage in April 1968, Coleman still saw to it that they got into law school.
Perhaps, someday, we’ll lay down our arms.
Samuel E. Roth is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and political science. He is a former Spectator editor in chief. We Are Not Alone runs alternate Thursdays.