fbpx

The Politically Correct Should Not Own Graduation

graduation

Graduation season is well underway. With all the excitement and regalia of the annual event, it might be easy to overlook the commencement address, an American tradition as old as the graduation ceremony itself. These addresses—and, in particular, the speakers invited by high schools and colleges to deliver them—have at this point become a regular source of controversy, protest, and even, on occasion, borderline violence.

There was a time when graduates saw the commencement speaker as that distinguished figure standing before them as the final obstacle to gaining their degrees. Following scores and scores of hours dedicated to study, what’s one more short, if slightly boring and innocuous, speech from an old sage claiming to have access to the secret recipe for success in life?

True, there were students who might have actually enjoyed their commencement speaker, although I suspect more than a few will carry into old age very little of what he or she said. For example, I remember exactly who our college commencement speaker was—Ohio State’s Archie Griffin—but to this day, while Griffin remains the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner in college football history, I still can’t bring to mind anything from his speech.

Then again, there are those who, whether on their own or moved by their mentors in the faculty or administration, respond to the commencement address in an altogether different manner. Believing it their right and duty, as their school’s unofficial vanguard against villainy and oppression, to dictate to others what can and cannot be heard from the podium, they protest commencement speakers whom they consider to be controversial. In almost every case where this has happened, “controversial” just means “conservative.”

Suddenly the commencement speech became a much more captivating sort of event. And this suggests, incidentally, that there may be something to be said for the importance of the input of students and faculty in the selection of a commencement speaker. Many facets of modern university life, from freshman move-in day to graduation, are already meticulously planned out by administrators, who in most cases exert complete, or nearly complete, control over the choice of a speaker.

Among the recent captivating/controversial instances: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voluntarily withdrew from addressing the Rutgers University Class of 2014 after student-led protests—including the forced occupation of a campus building—frightened university officials. Also in 2014, Brandeis University disinvited Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali Muslim and outspoken critic of Islam’s treatment of women and gays, following an intense showdown with a group of Muslim activists and radical faculty. The list of other recent silencings goes on: Robert Birgeneau at Haverford College, Christine Lagarde at Smith College, Robert Zoellick at Swarthmore College, and Dr. Benjamin Carson (now a presidential candidate) at Johns Hopkins University.

With these now-common acts of intimidation, which sometimes come with threats of violence, activists are succeeding in their intended goal: avoiding direct contact with diversity of thought and opinion. But they have also, and accidentally, succeeded in producing more public interest in this topic than there was before. The graduation speech now seems worthy of serious study, with value beyond graduation day. It is in light of these new and curious circumstances that the journalist and author Zev Chafets has given us Remembering Who We Are: A Treasury of Conservative Commencement Addresses.

This collection seeks to challenge the dominant tendency in higher education to prefer fashionable consensus to intellectual rigor and discourse. Conversation and curiosity are no longer the norm in the American classroom; they have been displaced by absolutism, disguised as political correctness, and in the pursuit not of a higher truth or power, but of power simply.

Chafets describes his purpose in the introduction: “to enlighten and inspire.” This is also, of course, the aim of any well-constructed commencement address. Specifically, the book is meant to “enlighten liberals by exposing them to new and unconventional thoughts,” and to “inspire conservatives—especially young conservatives—with the realization that there are plenty of brilliant, talented, and eminent men and women who share their views and who speak to, and for, them.”

Two monumental tasks, to be sure. While it may be impossible to judge the extent to which Chafets is successful in that endeavor, what is certain is that this little volume is a necessary and timely breath of fresh air amid the intellectual rot hanging over, especially, America’s elite colleges and universities.

An idiosyncrasy of the collection is its reliance on remarks that were spoken or written by their authors, but not formally delivered as part of an official commencement ceremony. Chafets loosely, but legitimately, defines the term “commencement addresses” to include many pieces that are either not speeches at all, or are speeches that were not spoken to graduating seniors. For example, the “commencement addresses” of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Rush Limbaugh, P.J. O’Rourke, Thomas Sowell, and Bret Stephens are presented in this way. What Chafets is doing with his expansive editorial hand is underscoring that actual  conservative commencement addresses are pretty rare in today’s academy.

Not that there is a party line represented here. There isn’t. With its 30 influential thinkers, the book offers a wide range of perspectives—those of entrepreneurs, artists, humanitarians, writers, academics, economists, media broadcasters, Supreme Court justices, military veterans, and politicians (at least six of whom are likely or 2016 presidential contenders). There are contributions here from social issues conservatives, libertarians, tea partiers, moderate conservatives, and left-leaning Republicans. With only a few exceptions, most of the speeches are from after 2008 (that is, during President Obama’s time in office), heavily favoring those delivered last year. They include:

  • “What I Would Have Said At Brandeis” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • “The Secret to Happiness” by Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute
  • “A Balanced Life” by Francis Collins, former leader of the Human Genome Project
  • “The Miracle of Freedom” by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX)
  • “Restore and Remake Our Country” by Victor Davis Hanson, military historian and classicist
  • “The Secret Knowledge” by David Mamet, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright
  • “Find Your Talent” by Bill O’Reilly, host of The O’Reilly Factor
  • “Love the People Who Are Closest to You” by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY)
  • “Do Your Best to Be Your Best” by Justice Clarence Thomas
  • “Gridlock, an American Achievement” by the columnist George F. Will

As the title indicates, all 30 men and women selected for inclusion are conservatives, though some of them probably would not call themselves such. Chafets is quick to point out that this collection, rather than developing a cohesive right-wing orthodoxy, is intended to “show the intellectual and cultural nuance on that side of the spectrum.” And so, as he rightly claims regarding the variety of contributors, “They would not all agree with one another on any particular issue.”

Take, for instance, the issue of illegal immigration. Mary Eberstadt, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., gave this advice to graduating seniors in her 2014 commencement speech at Seton Hall University: “Never, ever use  the word ‘illegal’ as a noun to describe a human being.” Are you listening, Mr. Limbaugh? (And consider that, even bearing this message, Eberstadt was protested by the campus Left at Seton Hall, students and faculty alike.)

This is the kind of book that anyone can pick up, turn to a random page, and begin reading with pleasure. And with its relatively short length (under 300 pages), it can be read from cover to cover in one or two sittings. It is meant for mass consumption, easy and fluid in style and prose, ideal reading for students, teachers, concerned citizens, and especially recent graduates. Its selections are suitable to the literary digestive appetites of one and all. Nor is every single selection from a university setting; one is the 2010 commencement speech given by Justice Antonin Scalia at Langley High School, a public school in Virginia.

Finally, the main title—Remembering Who We Are—deserves attention. One might assume that conservatives are the “we” indicated here. That is, conservatives need to remember who they are and can begin to do that by reading conservative speeches. However, since the aim is to break the partisan liberal blockade on graduation speeches, in fact on all forms of campus speech, with a book that is meant for everyone—Left, Right, and center—this misses the mark. It is as ill-fitting to readers as intolerant left-wing doctrine is to education.

The true meaning of the title must be that “we” takes in all students, and for that matter all human beings. The commencement address is meant to enlighten and inspire human beings by reminding them what it means to be human, particularly during one of the defining and formative milestones of a life.

Remembering who we are, then, demands knowledge of the distinctly human experience of living well, or an answer to the all-important question: how ought we to live? The commencement address (and hence this book) is always an attempt to answer that burning question.

Such utterance is turned aside or shouted down at our own risk and possible peril.

We would do well to remember it.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on May 19, 2015 at 09:07:59 am

I do not know the facts for most of the cases to which Stevens alludes, above. I am, however, familiar with one of them: Robert Zoellick, at Swarthmore College. It seems to me that there is nothing objectionable about students conducting a civil, non-violent debate over the merits of s speaker. We should remember Thomas Jefferson's admonition in favor of free speech in his First Inaugural (I paraphrase): we should have no fear of allowing peurile idiots to speak publically about politically charged topics, so long as responsible adults are present to correct them. Jefferson was more eloquent, of course, but I can only dredge up the gist of his remark, writing from memory.

Anyway, this is what happened at Swarthmore. Some students wrote in the student paper to criticize Zoellick, made some extravagent and incorrect claims, and others, speaking as the responsible adults in the conversation, rebutted them. I take this to be a nice confirmation of Jefferson's confudence in participatory democratic speech.

So it is true that Zoellick was silenced. But it was not by the administration of the College, nor by the faculty, nor by the students. Zoellick silenced himself, and he did so out of respect for Swarthmore, and for the ceremonial and liminal nature of the occasion.

You can find lots of commentary about this episode online. There is a pretty good journalistic analysis at Inside Higher Ed (Zack Budryk, "A Speaker Withdraws at Swarthmore," April 8, 2013, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/04/08/swarthmore-commencement-speaker-withdraws-over-controversy).

Here, in part, is Budryk's reporting:

"Maurice Eldridge, Swarthmore’s vice president for college and community relations, said in an interview before Zoellick withdrew that the college was committed to diversity of perspective.
“Over our very long history we’ve invited alums of many perspectives and fields … to come back and speak, and typically, in fact, when we do so, we usually have 3 or 4 speakers,” Eldridge said, “all of which reflect the college’s commitment to leaders who … can make a difference…. We don’t find that Robert Zoellick is out of that practice.”
While Eldridge defended the selection of Zoellick as a speaker, he also praised debate among the student body, which he said was “going on pretty civilly between them.”
“Some of the students question the facts in that conversation,” Eldridge said of the war, “and I’m glad they’re having that kind of conversation where they’re challenging one another along intellectual lines.”
Ben Berger, who teaches a course on participatory democracy at Swarthmore, said he was similarly pleased with the debate being generated.
“The students seem heavily in favor of Zoellick's coming here. I have asked several of my classes for their impressions of the political climate, and that's the impression I've come away with,” Berger said via e-mail before Zoellick made his announcement. “Yet I'm proud of the relatively small minority of students who have questioned Zoellick's appropriateness, because what are we as an academic and ethical community if we don't have free inquiry? It takes courage to stand against the majority, not only the majority of students but the majority of faculty. So I'm proud of the dissenters.”
"[Zoellick] is a model for students who want to combine knowledge with service, ethics with outreach, and wisdom with a commitment to the wider world," Chopp said in her statement. "Swarthmore is very proud to claim him as an alumnus and stands by its decision to award him the honorary degree.""

read full comment
Image of Kevin R. Hardwick
Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 20, 2015 at 01:06:27 am

The current climate of "diversity" and political correctness that is a blight upon the modern world of academia is the final flowering of Cultural Marxism. That is the "long march thru the institutions" to control the intellectual "culture" and "ideas" of Academia. That culture being the complete elimination of any kind of intellectual free market opposition to an emerging socialist,collectivist world. Many of these overpaid professors,especially in the "soft" sciences couldn't make a living in the outside world if their lives depended on it. They rely on high salaries and tenure provided by their Universities that,in turn,feed off of the wealth created in the market system that the professors hate and want to destroy. Students go into debt (sometimes for decades),parents sacrifice their hard earned dollars,sometimes even taking out second and even third mortgages to put their kids through these academic mills while many of these professors collect paychecks that would be impossible outside of their intellectual ivory tower world. In many cases conservatives and libertarians are booed off of the stage by "rent a mobs" while Marxists who advocate gulag reeducation camps are cheered on. The only thing that I can see about this situation is that many American people are so broke and in debt that they can't afford to send their kids to these academic Taj Mahals. Maybe it will get so bad that the only people showing up at these commencements will be the Mercedes Marxist parents, their brainwashed "college graduate" children and some politically correct speaker that will blow intellectual sweet nothings into their collective ears.

read full comment
Image of libertarian jerry
libertarian jerry

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.