Defending her successors, Smith College alumna (and future history professor?) Jacqui Shine argues that protesting commencement speakers shows that the graduates have in fact fulfilled the College’s mission:

If anything, this protest suggests that the college has excelled in its stated goal of allowing “students to observe different models of achievement, then set their own course with conviction.” Those who opposed Lagarde’s invitation have been well prepared to “fulfill their responsibilities to the local, national and global communities in which they live.” You might not like the way they fulfill those responsibilities, but you ought to respect their independence of mind and character.    

Protesting a speaker does not betray the College’s commitment to a free exchange of ideas or indicate any sort of intolerance, she says. But when a commencement speaker gives her address without any opportunity for those who disagree with her to talk back, the only avenue left is protest, either before the speech or on its occasion. 

In at least one respect, I think Shine knows better than this, in others, I’m not so sure. Let me begin with the one where she might know better. Reporting about her own undergraduate days, she remembers former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s commencement address, during which some students turned their backs on the speaker. Shine recalls encountering Albright at a brunch before commencement  and remarks that “brunch is no place to begin a spirited debate.” I agree; there are times and places when debate and confrontation are inappropriate. I’m glad Shine recognizes this.

But that’s the extent of our agreement. Shine goes on to complain that no other venue was provided for students “to respectfully discuss Albright’s ideas.” Consequently, she implies, students had no choice but to express themselves at commencement.

I have trouble understanding what constitutes a free exchange of ideas when a commencement speech inherently and explicitly does not include space for a response. In this context, protest is the only means of responding, and opposition becomes a vigorous, if unwieldy, expression of the kind of exchange institutions like Smith should prize.

It never seems to occur to her that there are times when it is appropriate just to listen. A commencement address is neither a lecture, nor an opening statement in a debate. It certainly shouldn’t last as long as an ordinary class or a standard public lecture. (If it did, even I might begin to protest, were I in the audience.) And even on one of these more standard academic occasions, the “exchange of ideas” should involve questions about and challenges to what the speaker actually says, rather than about what he or she said or did on another occasion. I can’t imagine that Madeleine Albright spoke or that Christine Lagarde would have spoken about the policies or actions that troubled Smith students. A commencement address doesn’t ordinarily serve as an occasion for a learned disquisition about foreign policy or international economics. So if it’s inappropriate to debate at brunch, it is, I think equally inappropriate to debate at commencement.

That Shine thinks that students ought to be given the occasion to ask hard questions of their commencement speaker is part of the problem. Yes, commencement is indeed all about the graduates, but that doesn’t mean that they get to do or have whatever they want. And because it is about the graduates, it shouldn’t be about the commencement speaker, even if that’s what some of them want.

In any event, there’s something that Shine says that tells me that it isn’t really about a high-level conversation between smart undergraduates and a distinguished campus guest. She objects to the suggestion that “students who, at least in the case of commencements, have no recourse to meaningful and respectful debate ought to simply listen without objection or response to a speaker whose ideas offend them.” Note the word I italicized. When someone takes offense at something, he or she does not want to engage in a respectful discussion about a point of disagreement. The person whose ideas are offensive is being hauled before the bar of those who, because they are offended, are sitting in judgment and have nothing to learn from the person they’re judging. Perhaps occupying the moral high ground is what they teach at Smith, but that’s rarely the beginning of a respectful exchange of ideas.

Shine sounds a lot more like one of Socrates’s Athenian judges than she does like one of his students. 

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg

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