Pomp and intolerance

Posted on May 12, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , |

Magnolia blossoms signify May, which in turn sprouts college graduations and their annual byproduct: commencement speeches.

The irony is as biting as a rice field mosquito.

This year’s headlines regarding institutions of higher education have been dominated by college students and administrations thwarting, bullying and canceling speakers of all sorts. So prevalent has the practice of unruly and unreasonable on-campus opposition to reasoned discourse become that the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression modified its 25-year tradition of “Muzzle” awards.

Normally, the center selects eight to 12 recipients which are held up as oppressors of free speech. They typically include elected and appointed officials, judges, lawmakers, regulatory agencies, organizations, administrations, governments, schools and colleges.

Last year, in light of “an epidemic of anti-speech activity” across America’s campuses, Jefferson Muzzles were awarded exclusively to 50 colleges and universities. Thankfully, none of them call Arkansas home.

But the trajectory of the alarming trend is astonishing. In 12 of the first 14 years of awarding Jefferson Muzzles, recipients included no colleges at all. From 1992 until 2005, a mere four colleges or universities received the dubious awards. Over the next decade, only 13 colleges and/or their administrations were given Jefferson Muzzles.

That a crop of 50 could crowd out every other category in 2016 casts a dispiriting complexion on the state of academia.

This year’s lone higher ed Jefferson Muzzle “winner” is Pierce College in California, which threatened a student with expulsion if he did not stop passing out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus. The student was told to get a permit and then directed to limit his distribution to a “free speech zone.”

That zone comprises 616 square feet—out of a 426-acre campus. Math majors might quickly calculate that Pierce College thus devotes 0.003 percent of its real estate to free speech.

The Jefferson Muzzles called out half a dozen colleges in 2016 for either disrupting or disinviting commencement speakers, and the TJ Center now has another prime candidate for next year’s consideration.

Baccalaureate candidates at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona, Fla., booed and turned their back on Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at this week’s commencement ceremony.

There had been protests prior to her speech, criticizing her for favoring the use of tax funds for children to attend private religious schools—a curious stance considering all of the Bethune-Cookman graduates were students at a private religious college, and most benefited from tax-funded financial aid.

Modern commencements have migrated away from the solemn occasions they once were, but most still preserve a modicum of respectful conduct and mannerisms.

Not so at Bethune-Cookman. The heckling got so bad that university president Edison Jackson halted DeVos early on to sternly address the class of 2017. “If this behavior doesn’t cease,” he said, “your degrees will be mailed to you.”

Four years of collegiate training seems like more than enough to foster a full understanding about the critical roles free speech and the open exchange of ideas play in securing liberty.

DeVos tried to speak of the knowledge gained from conversing with those with whom one disagrees. The jeering students didn’t seem to realize that scholarship and intolerance are utterly incompatible. An aptitude for study is irreconcilable with prejudiced closed-mindedness.

The opposite of a scholar isn’t a dunce, but a bigot.

Fool’s caps would have been more appropriate than mortarboards for the Bethune-Cookman seniors who chose to face away from the stage containing not only DeVos but their own university faculty.

Sadly, the behavior on display was most disrespectful of Bethune-Cookman’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune. As a child of freed slave parents, she recognized at a young age the vital importance of literacy, which led her to devote her life to learning.

She began her teaching career at a missionary school, and in 1904 founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, which would eventually become Bethune-Cookman. Her fervent faith was a driving passion with which she imbued her students: the rigorous curriculum designed to achieve self-sufficiency for her girls began at 5:30 a.m. with Bible study.

Bethune couldn’t afford to turn her back on people she disagreed with. Not unless she wanted to abandon her vision and life’s work. Indeed, many of her wealthy benefactors started out as skeptics of the school’s value and future; she won them over by engaging them.

The story goes that when she got word of a white Daytona resident who pointed a rifle at some of her students as they walked past his house, she responded with courtesy rather than confrontation.

Her gift for garnering good will through dialogue soon resulted in that same man pledging to protect “Old Mary” and her students with his life.

Perhaps the most dismaying aspect of the Bethune-Cookman University incident is seeing college graduates, standing at the threshold of life, succumb so willingly to fear. How fragile their conviction about beliefs and principles must be if it cannot withstand even a wisp of voiced disagreement.

It takes courage to be at the vanguard of free speech. Maybe that should become a required course.

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