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Commencement: Celebration not Controversy

It’s hard to argue with a person who’s promoting free speech. But that’s what I’m about to do.

In his What in the World broadcast, Liberals think they’re tolerant, but they’re not, CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria claims that students who protest at graduation ceremonies demonstrate “an attitude of self-righteousness that says we are so pure, we’re so morally superior, we cannot bear to hear an idea with which we disagree.”

Citing recent student protests of university commencement speakers, including Notre Dame’s student walkout when Vice President Mike Pence began to speak, Zakaria says, “freedom of speech and thought is not just for warm fuzzy ideas that we find comfortable.”

Again, it’s hard to argue against that position. But we must. Because Mr. Zakaria is pointing the finger in the wrong direction.

The problem is not with the students. The problem lies in the commencement structure.

As much as Zakaria makes a solid argument for open-mindedness, he completely ignores the structure—the social, physical and emotional environment—of the day. For Zakaria, free speech seems independent of purpose or setting. The contextual rule of not yelling FIRE in a building comes to mind, but we don’t have to go that far to see the missing link.

Graduation is a momentous occasion. It’s both personal and communal. For the student, it’s recognition of a monumental achievement. The end of one chapter and the beginning of another. For parents it’s bittersweet. A rite of passage for their children and for themselves. For families of graduates, it’s a shared sense of collegiality. A proud moment of affirmation. For everyone it’s an acknowledgement of success. It’s a celebration.

And a commencement address should reflect that occasion.

Google the phrase “commencement address,” and you’ll get more than 4 million hits. Bottom line? Ring true. Be inspirational. Keep it short.

A commencement address is not about controversy or provocation. It’s a time for words of wisdom and a few jokes—both of which will be forgotten soon after the speaker has left the stage. Newly minted graduates and their families expect and deserve inspiration. Not anxiety.

Mr. Zakaria points out the importance of “talking to each other seriously and respectfully about agreements and disagreements, [so] we can come together in a common conversation…”

But commencement is not a conversation. It’s a celebration. With no chance for comment or rebuttal, a commencement address by a provocative speaker is unfair. Shaping the day in that way leaves some students with no recourse but to protest any way they can.

I was recently part of a thread on social media regarding Women’s March co-founder Linda Sarsour and her upcoming CUNY commencement address. My response was the same: it is not fair to invite a controversial speaker like Ms. Sarsour to an event when there’s no opportunity for Q &A.

Invite Ms. Sarsour—and Vice President Pence, Education Secretary DeVos and others—into the classroom where students can challenge them. Heaven knows we need more dialogue and debate among differing points of view. And classrooms are the forum for this type of engagement. Don’t force students at their own commencement to listen silently to speakers with whom they disagree.

We sell graduates short when we assume they “cannot bear to hear an idea with which we disagree.” On the contrary. These bright minds have spent their most recent years learning to question and challenge ideas.

Liberal intellectuals aren’t intolerant, Mr. Zakaria. Their liberal education has taught them the importance of engagement. Rather than view student protests as a sign of unwillingness to engage, let’s support their commitment to their ideals.

~by Joyce Schriebman, President and Founder, My Brother from Another Mother

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