Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Why bother to go to college if you refuse to learn?

While rivalries in sports are generally considered to be healthy and fun, I am beginning to think that our college campuses are teaching students to stifle differences rather than learn from them. From coast to coast we seem to be teaching a generation of Americans that “free speech” extends only to those with whom they agree. I am so disgusted with what has transpired on college campuses this year: several guest speakers either have been shouted down or been forced to cancel their appearances because students simply did not want to hear from them. It would be like Red Sox fans blocking the Yankee bus from pulling into the parking lot at Fenway to try and force a forfeit. What’s the point of joining a discussion if you only want to hear from people with whom you agree?

And let’s be clear — the people who have been the focus of the students’ ire are not skinheads or members of the Westboro Baptist Church. They are world leaders like for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde (Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund). And while the uber-liberal campuses of Smith and Haverford have been among the most high-profile schools to publicly reject their scheduled speakers, Rutgers University (the state university of New Jersey) was the campus that made Condoleezza Rice feel so unwelcome that she declined her invitation. Think about it — thousands of interested — not necessarily indoctrinated — students and their families have been robbed of the chance to hear from the first African-American female Secretary of State because a vocal minority did not agree with the politics of the administration for which she served. Shameful.

I blame some of this on what appears to be the most narcissistic generation of all time — and the problem seems to be as much local as national. Bryant President Machtley had to institute “no selfie” with him rule so that the conferring of degrees didn’t take 6 hours.   And how about the college kids who thought that the Mount Hope Bridge would be a good place for a full public display of affection? Did they tweet: “#busted #MtHopeBridge #300footclub”? But truly, it comes down to thinking that your opinion is the only one that matters. Last fall, New York City Police Commissioner, Ray Kelly, was heckled off the stage at Brown University because student groups had gotten themselves whipped up about alleged racial profiling in the New York Police Department. So rather than having the opportunity to learn about what steps the NYPD had taken to minimize profiling, they shouted down a public servant who has spent his life keeping their spoiled selves safe in his big bad city.

I also blame part of this self-absorbed, my-way-or-the-highway attitude on the mindset that appears to permeate Congress right now. Both Republicans and Democrats can take their share of the blame for finger-pointing across the aisle about why things don’t get done. There are few voices left in the middle and even fewer on each side who can see the damage that is done by a government by stalemate and are willing to put their political necks on the line to fix the problem. If nothing else, the navel-gazing college students of today will be perfectly suited to serve in Congress.

As a not-so-recent college graduate, I remember my graduation speaker (Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder D-CO) for being kind of boring and really predictable. Would her talk have been more memorable if she said something that got me fired up? Maybe. Would listening to someone with whom I disagreed been a fitting end to a challenging and academically rigorous experience? Definitely.

I’m clearly not qualified to give a commencement speech, but if I did, I’d tell students that you learn more from listening to your opponent than you ever will from your supporters and that leadership is not about getting people to do what you say, it’s about getting others to respect what you think — even if they disagree. Of course, I won’t wait for that invitation since I know they won’t like what I’d have to say.

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