I wish I could say the commencement speech I heard at my graduation ceremony from the University of Massachusetts thirty one years ago this month was memorable for me, life changing, that its soaring rhetoric sent me into the world, diploma in hand, primed for action! But it did not. On that bright sunny Saturday, like many of my fellow graduates, I had other things on my mind. I wanted to find my proud parents in a sea of onlookers. I wondered if I’d find a job. I was sad about leaving UMass, my friends, my community.
But whether or not I and my fellow undergrads actually listened, our speaker, Eleanor Holmes, Chairperson of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: she spoke her piece. Expressed her opinion. Speechified unfettered, unedited. No one protested. No one complained. No one sought to shut her up because of what she believed, her politics, her past actions. I mean we were on a college campus, right? The place in the world where ideas of all kinds are supposed to be taught and discussed, debated and argued, aired out and presented in freedom, for all to hear and then for all to judge.
But not so much this year at some very high profile “liberal” American colleges and universities. In 2014 the list of speakers shut down, shut out, or invited but then rudely disinvited to speak at college commencements: it reads like a who’s who of some the most qualified, talented and committed folks in our world. At Smith College, International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde, one of the most powerful women in the world, withdrew from speaking after student protests. At Rutgers University, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at one time the most influential African-American woman in the United States government, bowed out from her speech in the face of student and faculty complaints. At Brandeis University, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of the bravest voices in criticizing religious fundamentalism in the Muslim world, was told, “thanks but no thanks”, her invitation to speak rescinded. Alums and students apparently were afraid she might be too controversial.
One of the things I loved about undergraduate and graduate school was learning and growing in a place of tolerance, enthusiastically investigating ideas and life experiences and politics different from my own. As a Christian at seminary, I was immersed in the study of other faiths and became less self-righteous in that process. As a white at UMass, for the first time in my young life I actually listened to the stories of students of color and began to understand the struggles they faced, the privilege I possessed. Straight, I met and became friends with gays and lesbians. A man, I was educated in the truth of gender discrimination. Liberal, I argued on the pages of my college newspaper, The Collegian, with conservative writers who gave me their best shot.
Isn’t that what a “liberal” education is all about? Isn’t this what it means to live in a “liberal democracy” like ours’, this amazing and messy and heady mix of religions and races and genders and orientations and ideologies? We’re not supposed to live in a mono culture in the United States but sometimes it can feel that way. We get the news from sources we feel comfortable with, hear only the opinions which reflect our bias—think all Fox News or all MSNBC or all Wall Street Journal or all NPR all the time. I’m guilty of this.
We’re governed by leaders who way too often stake out their positions at the far end of the spectrum: wide eyed knee jerk soft hearted “liberalism”, or close minded, small hearted crazy conservatism. Who speaks for the many of us who live in the middle? We can be tempted to worship our God in our way and become so convicted of the rightness of our faith that faithfulness morphs into fundamentalism. We consciously and unconsciously segregate ourselves into communities of people who look like us, talk like us, believe like us and live like us.
I know I don’t want to live this way: closed off, existing in an ideological echo chamber which reflects back only ideas guaranteed to make me comfy, happy and oh so sure of what I believe. In a way the censoring of commencement speakers reflects a larger trend in our country towards social fundamentalism. We fear what we don’t know. And we don’t know, because our fear prevents us from even listening to “the other” in the first place.
This is what I believe, even before I believe anything. In the free marketplace of ideas, a radically open exchange of knowledge and opinions is needed for the “truth” to finally emerge, whatever that might be. Without this interaction, we are doomed to live on islands of ignorance. We are consigned to life in a warring world where we attack each other because we don’t try to actually find what our “opponent” thinks.
So here’s to graduation. Let the champagne flow and the speeches fly and the diplomas go hand to hand. Maybe next year more of our mortar board clad grads will actually get to hear from someone they disagree with.
Now that’s truly “liberal” higher education.