COMMENTARY | Oh, Class of 2014, what have ye wrought? The news cycle has been abuzz this month about angry college soon-to-be-graduates protesting their respective school’s choice for commencement speakers. After a slew of high-profile VIPs ended up not speaking, critics began pushing back, calling the college students a bunch of spoiled, irrational ninnies. The gist of their collective argument was that these young twentysomethings need to learn how to listen to those with whom they do not agree and acknowledge that you need not agree with a speaker’s politics or history to learn something valuable.
The Associated Press reports that former Princeton University president William Bowen has told graduates of Haverford College that they were spoiled and arrogant for protesting their scheduled commencement speaker, former UC Berkeley president Robert Birgeneau, and insisting that he comply with a list of “demands.” Students, and a few professors, were upset with Birgenau’s handling of student protesters on the UC Berkeley campus in 2011. According to the Washington Post, other high-profile commencement speakers who withdrew after being protested include former IMF head Christine Lagarde and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Additionally, students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education are protesting the intended speaker, Colorado state senator Michael Johnston, in opposition of his support for test-based teacher accountability.
Simultaneously, the New York Times reports on the rise of the “literary warning.” Apparently, while the Class of 2014 is upset over its commencement speakers, the classes of 2015-2017 are not happy with lots of the subject material being shown, read, or discussed by professors. Many students want their colleges and universities to require instructors to provide warnings of material that may depict “traumatizing” situations, concepts, and scenarios like rape, violence, suicide, racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. Supporters say that survivors of rape, combat, and violent assault should be warned of possible “triggers” in academic material that may prompt them to feel distress. Critics say that demands for “literary warnings” are mostly student entitlement run amok and that academic freedom will suffer, with professors forced to “sanitize” or “dumb down” material to avoid any possible offense.
Between protesting our commencement speakers and wanting warnings for possibly offensive material in our college classes, are we looking at real social progress…or just entitlement run amok?
While I do sympathize with those who want some sort of warning for graphic material that may cause intense distress among survivors of rape, combat, and violent assault, I believe that we are hindering academic rigor and freedom by insisting that every book written for an audience above middle school come with a warning label. The real world is intense and people must learn to deal with it…without warning labels. We will encounter racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, heightism, lookism, and all other forms of discrimination whether or not we “sanitize” our college courses of unanticipated mentions of such prejudice.
It happens and you’ve got to learn to deal with it. You have to learn to deal with being offended. As a short man, I have had to deal with rude questions, subtle discrimination, and all manner of slights. I have been asked, eloquently, “is you grown?” by a student while working as a substitute teacher. I have been told “dang, you short” by another eloquent youth. Those are just the most recent, unsubtle examples. It’s annoying, but I’ve learned how to deal with it.
You’ve just got to learn how to deal with it. Academic sanitizing, appealing as it may be, does not prepare students for the slings and arrows of the real world.
Similarly, like William Bowen said, you must learn to work with those with whom you disagree. I am a political moderate, leaning toward liberal, and the teacher in the next classroom over is an ardent conservative. I disagree with many of his views…but I must work with him. He is a good colleague and a good teacher. As a young teacher, I can learn from him. Despite his political leanings, he has much to offer me.
Protesting those with whom we disagree is immature and short-sighted. Shouldn’t we try to accept and persuade those with whom we disagree to adopt our views? Listen to what they say, provide counterarguments, and begin a dialogue. Running away from disagreement leads to no growth. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
My advice to the Class of 2014 (and ’15, ’16, ’17, and ’18): Grow up, toughen up, and see differences as challenges and opportunities rather than mere offenses.