A MAD commencement season

“Graduates Cautioned: Don’t Shut Out Opposing Views.” Such was the pointed and mildly tendentious headline The New York Times wrote for its roundup of college commencement speeches from this year’s graduation season.

The headline was clearly referencing the protests that greeted a few invited speakers on a few campuses this spring, when students said they didn’t want their graduation commemorated by speakers who either dissembled us into the Iraq War, condoned police force against Occupy protesters, or represented an institution — the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — that some students saw as worsening global inequality.

{mosads}True to the headline, the Times led with excerpts from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (I) Harvard University address, in which he chided students for their “intolerance of ideas” and warned that “requiring scholars — and commencement speakers, for that matter — to conform to certain political standards undermines the whole purpose of a university.”

Immediately following was Ruth Simmons, former president of Smith College, who gave the Smith commencement address after IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde withdrew because of student protests. “One’s voice grows stronger in encounters with opposing views,” Simmons told the Smith graduates. 

Next up was former Princeton University President William Bowen, who rebuked Haverford College students for protesting their originally scheduled speaker: “I regard this outcome as a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford — no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.”

Now let’s be clear. Despite what these commencement speeches suggest, the protesting students weren’t saying they didn’t want opposing views on campus. They were simply saying that they didn’t want this consequential day in their lives marked by someone whose actions or work violated the values or spirit of their education.

But wait.

The Times also excerpted Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen’s New York University speech, in which she urged students to have “the courage to stand up for what you believe.”

And then the Times quoted Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights legend, who told Emory University graduates “to get in the way, to get in trouble,” by which he meant taking a risk for justice.

So let’s try to decode what this year’s graduates were hearing.

They were told to stand up for what they believe. And they were admonished for standing up for what they believe.

They were told to get in the way and get in trouble on behalf of principle. And they were rebuked for getting in the way and causing trouble on behalf of principle.

They were told to respect free speech. And they were reproached for exercising their free speech through protest.

If I didn’t know any better, I would think this was a MAD magazine parody of commencement speeches.

Steinhorn is a professor of communication and an affiliate professor of history at American University. His expertise includes American politics, culture and media, strategic communication, the presidency, race relations, the 1960s and recent American history. He is author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, and co-author of By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race. He is the founding editor of PunditWire, where political speechwriters comment on the news. Before joining the American University faculty, he spent 15 years as a political consultant and speechwriter.

Tags Academia Christine Lagarde Commencement speech Condoleezza Rice Emory University Graduation Harvard University Haverford College IMF International Monetary Fund Michael Bloomberg New York University Ruth Simmons Smith College William Bowen
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