The looming commencement address apocalypse

So one of the big stories today was that the Managing Director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, withdrew from her planned commencement speaker gig at Smith College because students and faculty had protested her selection. She is but the latest in a recent string of would-be commencement honorees who have chosen to, or been forced to, withdraw from their planned appearances due to student/public outcry in the last couple of weeks. In a piece that was so simplistic that I’d bet the Smith College student body would agree to drop their protest if we could go back in time and stop the Daily Beast from publishing it, Olivia Nuzzi told the Class of 2014 to “STFU” (LOL, this graduating class just got totally PWNED!), because college is all about trying new things:

Colin Powell (also: Iraq) is scheduled to deliver the commencement at High Point University. Sean Combs is going to address the graduating class at Howard University. I am personally offended by both of those people, but you know what? I bet they’ll both have something interesting to say—even if I don’t agree with every item on their CVs.

OK, let me stop you here, because neither one of those guys is going to have anything interesting to say. Do you know how I know that? Because they’re giving commencement addresses. “If you put your blah blah blah, there’s nothing you can’t blah. Blah dreams blah blah nothing is impossible. Blah change the world blah blah, thank you for my five figure speaking fee, God bless.”

“Hahaha, did I say five figure fee? Because, hoo boy!”

Millennials have grown up in a world where you are never forced to see, hear or read anything that you haven’t personally selected. 7,000 TV channels, a DVR to skip commercials, millions of websites—we have been able to curate our own little worlds using technology, wherein nothing unpleasant or offensive can creep in. So when we’re forced to sit through a commercial or, heaven forbid, listen to someone talk who isn’t Mary-freakin’-Poppins, we can’t handle it.

This was about the point where I figured the Smith students would gladly have dropped their protest in order to prevent this article from ever having been written.

The entire point of college is to be exposed to different things: Different types of people, different ideas—and maybe some of those people will hail from organizations that negatively impacted poor countries, or maybe they were partly responsible for a war that ate up the country’s resources and resulted in human rights abuses and lots of needless death. But if, at the end of your time as an undergrad, you haven’t learned that oftentimes you find great wisdom in shitty people, or just that there might be some value in hearing what someone you don’t like or respect might have to say, what on earth have you learned?

This is…a strange idea of what college ought to be about. Smith wasn’t inviting Christine Lagarde to give a substantive talk to a group of students and faculty who would then be allowed to question her. They weren’t inviting her to participate in a debate. They were inviting her to talk platitudes at a big group of people for 45 minutes and then collect her check and be on her way. If one of the points of college is to be exposed to different ideas, then an equally important point is to engage with those different ideas, to challenge them, to critique them, and ultimately to come to your own understanding. Not only were there not going to be any new ideas in Christine Lagarde’s commencement address, there certainly wasn’t going to be any chance for those students to engage her about any of them.

Greg Lukianoff’s version of the “STFU” message, in Time, isn’t much better:

Students and faculty have the right to protest speakers and to criticize their colleges for choosing speakers they dislike. Yet to function as a true “marketplace of ideas,” the university community must be open to hearing from people from different walks of life, professions, experiences and philosophical and political points of view. When students (or faculty, who should definitely know better) work to exclude a speaker from campus, they are thinking like censors, not scholars. A scholarly community should approach speakers with even radically different points of view as opportunities to be engaged, not as a political loss that must be avoided at all costs. Exercising a little intellectual humility might lead students and faculty away from asking “what can I do to get rid of the speaker?” and towards “what might I learn if I hear this person out?” After all, if you’re only willing to hear from people with whom you agree, it’s far less likely you will learn new things.

I mean, look, I generally think you should just roll with whoever gets hired selected to be your commencement speaker, but this is pretty hyperbolic. For one thing, at the risk of repeating myself, there’s no “engagement” with a commencement speech. A student’s choices there are “be talked at” and “don’t go.” For another thing, if you want to expose students “to hearing from people from different walks of life, professions, experiences and philosophical and political points of view,” then next year have a single mother on food stamps give your commencement speech, or some kid who got railroaded into prison on a misdemeanor by one of our Galtian judges who’s on the payroll of a private prison company. I guarantee you they need the speaking fee a hell of a lot more than Christine Lagarde does. The rotating and indistinguishable Masters of the Universe types who are always chosen to give these speeches aren’t going to expose your students to anything by which they haven’t already been, and will forever be, bombarded, in the newspaper, online, on TV, and, yes, in the classroom. Christine Lagarde hasn’t been “censored.” Condoleeza Rice hasn’t been “censored.” Some students found the idea of their tuition money going to pay these people to speak at their graduation distasteful, and so those people are no longer speaking at those ceremonies. Oh, the humanity!

And oh, by the way? This “recent phenomenon” of commencement speakers being hounded off campus by hordes of college graduates, that seems to have everybody so upset at the “soft” millenials today? It’s not at all recent.

(via Sullivan, who has yet to actually weigh in on this brutal attack on people’s First Amendment rights to give commencement addresses at universities and colleges, but whose feelings on the subject are already well-known)


One thought on “The looming commencement address apocalypse

  1. “next year have a single mother on food stamps give your commencement speech”

    Bravo! I heartily approve of this sentiment.

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