Everybody thinks we're wrong
Simply because our hair is long ..."
-- "What's Going On," Marvin Gaye
This has been the Spring of Disinvitation for speakers at university commencement exercises, as several high-profile figures who had been invited to speak at college graduations became the objects of protest by the graduating seniors. Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice did not address Rutgers University, because students protested her complicity in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Former chancellor of UC Berkeley Robert Birgeneau was replaced at Haverford College, because students there protested the excessive force he allowed in 2011 against an Occupy movement on his campus. And International Monetary Fund Chief Christine Lagarde stayed home from Smith College, because students protested the IMF's perceived oppression of women in developing countries. To be clear: These speakers were not actually disinvited. They withdrew voluntarily from their fees and honorary degrees, choosing to avoid controversy.
Many naysayer-pundits have criticized the students for being close-minded, for supposedly not wanting to hear from anyone with whom they disagree. They have excoriated the students for suppressing the scheduled-and-then-unscheduled speakers' right to free speech. The replacement speaker at Haverford even rebuked the students for protesting, calling them "immature" and "arrogant," and suggesting they could have just stood up and turned their backs during Birgeneau's speech. I say that the students are the admirable ones, for exercising their rights to petition and protest, and for carrying forward the democratic tradition in which they have long been schooled. Good for them for standing up for their idealistic beliefs: How easily we forget that this is the college student's job!
College is the age when we are the most passionate about the black-and-white world. We fight for what we believe is right; we take a stand for truth and justice in the face of society's hypocrisy and ennui. As we age, and we mature, we see more gray: How could we not? We are surrounded by gray, in a way that sometimes makes us long for the simpler days of black-and-white. The gritty lives we lead as adults are full of doubt and moral ambiguity and practicality, and comprised of days when we are occupied with making impossible decisions and making ends meet, and nights when we are consequently too tired to go to demonstrations. We lose our passion even as we gain a certain insight into the human condition. We relinquish our righteousness as we grow in compassion. Our edges soften; our focus blurs. We let go of the causes that are perhaps not as important as we thought they were.
But maybe we're in danger of forgetting the things we should try not to forget, like the fact that we were once those college students. We organized the boycotts and tried to raise the consciousness of our parents and marched without irony to make the world a better place. We thought it was our job to right the centuries of wrong and speak truth to power. And we were right. It was our job. It was our time.
Now it is the time of another generation of students. Rather than berate or condemn them, we should applaud them, or at least listen with grace. They may change our minds, or at least awaken something within us. Why do we put up with lies from our government officials? Why do we tolerate oppression and injustice? When did we get too busy to care about the impact we have on the world we are handing on to younger people?
Never forget that the voices of students can change the direction of history. Those were students who refused to move from segregated lunch counters in the South, and who protested the Vietnam War nationwide. Beyond America, those were students who initiated the Prague Spring and Tiananmen Square. Students can make us remember that we are each a part of the human community, and that we need to stand for good.
Students hardly need to be reminded that academic freedom demands the open exchange of ideas and viewpoints. They've just completed four years of discussion and analysis, research and critical thinking. They are poised to be lifelong learners. But a commencement speech is not the time for a spirited debate; it is a moment for the breath of inspiration. Students have the right to expect a commencement speaker who is a role model, an adult who represents the best of dreams and goals, of heart and possibility, a lamp for the path of the next generation. Students also care about whom their alma mater bestows honorary degrees on, because that reflects their school's values. To the students' minds, which, in our country that treasures free speech, they had every right to speak. The proposed speakers just weren't it. Most people do not remember the speech they heard at graduation. But these students will not forget how they made their voices heard. Nor should we.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.