Pomp and intolerance

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.

A graduation tribute

This month, literally millions of parents will feel their mixed emotions swell up as their child graduates from high school. On May 13, I will be one of them.

The cap-and-gown ceremony will culminate a springfest of senior student ceremonies.

Already there have been academic and athletic award recognitions, “senior nights” for various sports, special parties, the swapping of senior pictures and the mailing of commencement invitations.

The graduating seniors are the focus, of course. They are the stars of all the preliminary events, and of the pomp and circumstance finale.

A baker’s dozen years of formal schooling boils down to a handshake of congratulations, a diploma worthy of framing and the symbolic repositioning of the mortarboard tassel.

It’s their moment. It will be photographed, celebrated and posted on Facebook and Twitter.

I’ll be swept away in the midst of it like all other parents. Proud. Sad. Happy. Worried. Reflective. Optimistic. Overwhelmed. Excited. And everything in between, simultaneously.

That’s why I want to take a few minutes today, while my thoughts are clearer, and express a deep gratitude that will probably get lost in that flood of emotions on graduation night.

As I’ve watched the school year wind down and attended events honoring seniors, I’ve seen my own misty eyes reflected back at me—and not just from the parents of other students.

Just about everywhere I looked, I saw teachers struggling with the same onslaught of emotions.

So this is my open letter of appreciation to all my child’s teachers (including coaches and principals), and I think I can speak for parents everywhere when I start it by simply saying: Thank you.

Thank you for being important in the life of my child, which as that famous creed reminds us, is what will matter most a hundred years from now. I can see the special bond you established with her, and it is indeed priceless. You shaped her with your integrity, your compassion, your experience and your faithfulness to your profession.

Thank you for teaching her so much more than her textbook subjects. Education ought to be an experience, and through your determination it has been a positive one. Not that there haven’t been bumps or setbacks; how else can we learn except that we occasionally fail? Your craft and its practice may not be infallible, but your heart for my child’s safety and destiny seems to be. I can never repay you for that.

Thank you for your daily dedication, which is as fine an example of the path to achievement as any parent can want for his child. Education can be viewed and argued over as a system, it can be tossed about as a political football, it can be micromanaged by out-of-touch policy wonks. I’m grateful that you don’t let such shenanigans distract you. Your focus every day is your students, our children, and I know that’s the real and only reason they learn.

Thank you for your extra effort. For grading papers at night. For being available to meet after school. For attending my daughter’s games. For sponsoring student activities that take you away from your own family after hours. For filling out all the paperwork bureaucrats pile on you. For everything you do that doesn’t fall between the opening and closing bells of the school day.

Thank you for disciplining my child, and showing her that rules exist for a reason, and actions and behaviors have consequences. Beneath the natural rebellion in most teenagers is an equally natural desire for boundaries. The process for managing the former in a productive way to deliver the latter is what great teachers do so well.

Thank you for doing an often thankless job. Complaints are always more common than compliments, and that’s probably triply true in teaching. Everybody knows that the best education is a partnership between home and school, but blameful parents can be quick to forget their own responsibilities.

Thank you for being a beacon of opportunity for my child. For continually showing her the promise the world holds. For helping her understand that obstacles are the things we see when we take our eyes off the goal. For imbuing in her the essence of all those old wise sayings and adages without having to actually resort to them (like I tend to do, with little visible efficacy).

Thank you for carrying the weight of our republic’s future on your shoulders, yet modestly toiling like you’re “just a teacher.” Our most brilliant founders all viewed education as the crucial key to successful self-government. It’s enshrined in state constitutions and emblazoned across philosophical treatises. As with churches, education isn’t the buildings or the campus. It’s the teachers.

Most of all, thank you for your role in making my daughter into the young woman now poised to graduate. For caring enough to write her a little note, give her a heartfelt hug, beam proudly at her accomplishments and wipe your eyes like she’s your very own.

And for having the capacity to hold that much love for a whole classful of kids. That’s why you’re a teacher.