O’Shea ’19: Standing up for liberal education

Staff Columnist
Monday, September 19, 2016

Aug. 24, the American University of Afghanistan was attacked by suspected Taliban militants. I believe the AUAF is the only institution in Afghanistan to operate under the liberal education model. Ambitious young students came to AUAF in search of freedom from the oppressions of violence and censorship. They came to study, discuss and discover in an environment conducive to scholastic excellence, one with space for free exploration and discourse. I came to Brown for these very reasons as well. For me, this violent act hit at what I value most as a student of our university. I am outraged to know that the sanctity of the liberal model was shattered for our brothers and sisters in Kabul.

This attack should serve as a reminder that throughout the world there is hostility against our academic model. Stringent ideologies oppose the freedom on which our University and many others are built. Thus in the wake of this tragedy we, as Brown students, must go beyond grief and solidarity. If we truly believe in the efficacy of our education, then we must work as tireless advocates. This advocacy does not require rhetoric. Rather, we are to lead by example: producing innovative research, magnificent art and new approaches to societal challenges that move the world forward.

In isolation, our indulgent education, with its emphasis on personal discovery and enjoyment, is a selfish endeavor. Let us then work to create larger meaning. By showing that profound advances in all fields come when a man is free to commit to what he loves, we are helping to develop forums for passionate intellectualism around the world. By creating more of these spaces we are multiplying the opportunities for progress. We are laying the foundation for paths toward peace and tolerance, for untold innovations that will improve the lives of millions. Our educational system is built on the premise that subservience to any particular doctrine is inadequate. Authoritarian forces think otherwise, but we have the tools to change minds, to show that the space for intelligent discourse, so sacred at our University, is necessary for prosperity.

The logical next step for AUAF would be greater fortification and greater separation from the city. Can this result in anything but escalation? A bigger bomb will blow through a bigger wall. On College Hill the line between the city and the University is blurred. Our symbiotic relationship with the community creates a vibrancy that would be impossible in isolation. I imagine a future for Kabul in which a liberal university no longer needs walls; rather its spirit shines on every street corner. If AUAF and other schools like it are to ultimately succeed in their mission, the communities in which they exist must be accepting of the myriad perspectives that bring life to the institution.

Last week, on a summer evening in Washington, D.C., I stood by the banks of the Potomac River as a lucky beneficiary of the freedom this country provides. I trembled beneath the inscription that encircles the inner dome of the Jefferson Memorial. “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Revolution does not begin with a bullet. First, there is an idea. Take up the oath, my friends.

Ronan O’Shea ’19 can be reached at

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