Mere days into the fall university term, there were two major incidents involving students shouting chants that appeared to glorify raping young girls. Just frosh week fun, some would say.
Universities as we know them began as offshoots of the church at a time when illiteracy was rampant. Urbanization and the Industrial Revolution brought the need for education, but the hallowed halls of Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrew’s and other universities founded over the centuries, remained out of reach for all but the sons of the elite until recently.
Our general perception of university is based on a centuries-old British model that has little to do with the way such institutions of higher learning function today.
The antiquated model saw wealthy young men packed off to daddy’s alma mater for a few years, not so much to study and learn, but to discuss the classics, bond with others of their class, and sow wild oats. Their futures assured by their family connections, they did not need the degree for practical reasons, apart from a few who aspired to certain professions like law. University was the upper class male equivalent of girl’s finishing school – a social training ground that produced well-spoken gentlemen.
That the boys would engage in spirited hijinks, sexual and otherwise, was expected. Their families had the money and influence to make minor misdeeds go away. Rules for the general rabble did not apply to those of a certain class.
From the almost tribal ritual humiliations and tests of masculinity that initiated membership in the elite all-male club, to graduation with its ancient titles and medieval caps and gowns, university was for the select few. Its customs fostered fierce loyalties and bonds, and a sense that “we” are superior to “them.”
Remnants linger on. Initiation became frosh week and is now called student orientation at some schools. The ritual humiliations have largely fallen by the wayside, but there is still a certain expectation prospective members of the elite club known as university will have to prove themselves worthy. Most of today’s students are oblivious to this and get on with their classes. Others drink dangerous amounts of alcohol and learn the misogynistic chants chosen for their shock value. They act like privileged young princelings of a bygone era.
The only problem is they live in the here-and-now, and raping and pillaging has gone out of fashion even for rich kids. They live in a society that is sufficiently egalitarian to prosecute and convict important corporate and political leaders for such major crimes as sexual assault, and even minor offences like being drunk and disorderly.
Our tolerance for frosh week fun gone amok ran its course long ago. We send our kids to university to give them better employment opportunities, not so they can spend three years living like dissipated oafs, or be forced to share lecture halls and dorm space with such people.
University students have to be held to the same standard of behaviour as any other adults. A group of ordinary men standing on the street or in a ball park, shouting about raping girls, would be risking arrest. It is the worst kind of bullying, creating an environment where women do not feel safe. If we condone the actions of UBC and St. Mary’s University students, how can we possibly condemn countries where women are treated like second class citizens?
The only remnant of the largely anachronistic view of university that still holds true is the concept that attending university is a privilege. The least we can do is treat this marvelous opportunity with respect.