Graduation has not been easy for the Class of 2014, or their speakers. After Boards of Trustees and Presidents chose and announced speakers they thought would impart essential knowledge and wisdom to graduating seniors, many students protested the speakers' problematic histories or the institutions they represented. Those who supported their institutions were silently supportive, believing that this too, would pass. And yet, one by one, the commencement speakers withdrew and declined their honorary degrees.
But what is disturbing about these protests is that many of my fellow students at Smith College who objected to Head of the IMF Christine LaGarde as our commencement speaker, did so in a way that indicated they were uninterested in LaGarde's point of view, eliminating any possibility of dialogue with her while she was here. Insider Higher Ed reported William G. Bowen, the speaker who replaced Robert Birgeneau at Haverford said via email that he was encouraged "to say something about the rather confused controversy."
And that's exactly what this was -- a rather confused controversy. As freshmen, we are brought to our liberal arts colleges by activist parents who grew up in the 60s and 70s. We are told stories of epic protests, civil rights demonstrations, the feminist movement and the strong legacy of activists and peacemakers that we are about to join. We are taught by our professors to question everything, to think critically, and to stand up for what we believe in.
We are taught to protest, to think critically, to use tactics that push boundaries and make a statement, to continually ask questions. In this case, something went wrong. I have no doubt in my mind that those who protested believed that they were standing up for what they believed was right. But what we need to keep teaching and reminding ourselves is what it means to protest.
Our country was founded on the idea that the freedom to speak freely is a freedom worth dying for. Indeed, many of our forefathers died to protect that right. But with a Congress that is so polarized that it seems as if no one is talking to each other and with a media that fuels the fire of controversy instead of bringing together opposing views in conversation with each other, what are we supposed to think? There are too few examples of dialogue working in our society today so why do we think it would work on a college campus?
A confused controversy is exactly what this is; we are confused. We are indoctrinated with the idea of standing up for what is right and going out into the world to make a difference but with no example of how dialogue and listening to each other can actually be, in fact, effective tools of do just that. Thus, we protest thinking we are standing on principle but we are forgetting an essential piece of this confused controversy: dialogue.
Nothing has ever been successfully accomplished without discussion. As Simmons said in her address to my class, "One's voice grows stronger in encounters with opposing views." These protests should not be a source of shame for colleges and alumnae. They should not be excuses for students to be cruel to each other. These protests should be used as a platform or a teachable moment to educate each other about the merits of dialogue, critical listening and debate. These protests should be opportunities that make our schools and our students intellectually stronger so that next time there is a protest, it is one that is empowered, ready to listen, debate, and argue with rhetorical effectiveness to each side. These protests should be used as strengthen our voices through dialogue, questioning and seeking answers to controversial questions and ideas.
In a few days, I am headed to Washington, D.C. to work for a senator who has committed his life to dialogue and "crossing the aisle" to work for Maine and the American people. Working for his campaign, I learned that it is entirely possible to listen to many differing and controversial and opposing views without feeling threatened or personally compromised. Indeed, listening and learning from controversy is enlightening.
Colleges will never choose a speaker who makes everyone happy. When the actor Jane Lynch spoke at commencement in 2012, I'm sure it offended or angered someone. But we should be teaching our students that when someone is chosen with whom we disagree, the absolute best possible thing we can do is listen to, to question, to challenge and then make damn well sure they know where we stand and why.
Because then maybe, just maybe, they will hear us and return the favor.