The noisiest summer fireworks are not on the Fourth of July, but a month earlier, when college students start their annual clamor to disinvite commencement speakers.
The targeted speakers this year have run the gamut from Rudy Giuliani at St. John Fisher College (too mean to President Obama) to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott at the University of North Texas (too tough on gay marriage and abortion) to former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold at UCLA (too rich and white).
But nobody has actually been disinvited yet, which means the class of 2015 is clearly no match for its 2014 counterparts in censoriousness. The 2014 kids managed to force out a dozen speakers, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Rutgers); IMF chief Christine Lagarde (Smith) and Somali refugee Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a harsh critic of the treatment of women in the Muslim world (Brandeis).
Conservatives have been carping about this trend for years, but booting Legarde and Hirsi Ali drew fire from across the ideological spectrum. Legarde is probably the most powerful woman in the world, and achieved her position neither through marriage nor birth. And Hirsi Ali’s criticism of female genital mutilation and honor killings — that’s now out of bounds on college campuses? Seriously?
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The tidal wave of attacks on the intellectual delicacy of today’s college students and their obsession with “microaggressions” and “trigger warnings” — Peggy Noonan scathingly labeled them “the first generation that comes with its own fainting couch” — have been unabated ever since.
I’m second to none in contempt for political correctness and intellectual isolationism.
Yet I find myself siding with the students in this argument. For I happen to have been sitting in the audience at one of the very first commencement-speech controversies, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s address at Stanford in 1975.
Moynihan later became famous as a neoconservative Democratic senator from New York. But in 1975 he was known mainly for his theory that the problems of black America were rooted not so much in racism but in a family structure in which fathers and husbands were increasingly absent.
Stanford’s black students overwhelmingly regarded Moynihan as a racist. And when they couldn’t get him uninvited, virtually every black graduating senior — about 140 of them — decided to protest by silently rising and walking out of the graduation ceremony when he came to the podium.
I didn’t agree with them that Moynihan was racist. (And 40 years later, many sociologists of all colors agree that he was onto something.) But I did agree with them that Stanford was wrong to invite a speaker whose views were repulsive to such a big chunk of the graduates.
A commencement speech is not part of a college education, which necessarily entails listening to opinions different than your own. Neither is it the same as a soap-box oration in the park, where if you don’t like the message, you just walk away.
It is, to a much, much greater extent than an ordinary speech, proprietary to its audience, most of which is attending only incidentally to the speech.
The graduating students are there to pick up their diplomas and be honored for four years of hard work; their families, to celebrate the achievement of their loved ones. Almost nobody is there because they want to hear Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Big Thoughts.
I certainly wasn’t.
Moynihan’s speech on the future of higher education quickly faded to a distant buzz as I sat there thinking about a lot of other things: how in a few hours, I would be flying halfway across the country to start a new life in the working world. How excited I was to be leaving classwork for a newsroom, and a dorm for an apartment. How much I had learned in the past four years, and how much I had failed to learn. How desperately I was going to miss my friends and Stanford, which had completely replaced the house where my parents lived as my home.
What were the chances that my relationship with my girlfriend would survive the divergent paths we were taking?
When Moynihan’s speech finally ended, we marched across the stage and got our diplomas. Outside, we hugged and laughed and shouted in joy and cried some tears.
None of my black classmates were anywhere in sight. Over the years, my sympathy has remained with them — with their hurt and anger that nobody cared how they felt, and that they couldn’t single-mindedly revel in their new diplomas with the rest of us.
The Moynihans of the world have plenty of opportunities to tell us their Big Thoughts, and we have plenty of opportunities to listen, should we choose to do so.
There is no need for those few minutes we're wearing caps and gowns to be among them.