Typically during this time of year, we hear about some college students protesting a controversial speaker invited to speak at their commencement address. The students typically interrupt the speaker with verbal protests or some other form of protest like holding up signs. The intention is to confront the speaker. Some of the students find the speaker’s views obnoxious or anti-social or fascist or racist or whatever, and they decide the best course of action is to try and shut the speaker down. It has become a regular event throughout the school year. I’ve had more than a few discussions with some good friends, who cry foul incessantly about this very topic.
My conservative leaning friends—and the conservative media—take the position that these liberal student protestors (and liberals in general really) are hypocrites: they bemoan and belittle conservatives for being “intolerant” of other groups of people and then liberal college students demonstrate open intolerance for conservative speakers and their ideas. Well, as it relates to the classroom or lecture hall, I think conservatives have a fair point about a lack of tolerance by students who protest controversial speakers. However, while I agree with them to a point, I do think there is a time when students should protest the invitation of a speaker. Let me explain.
The university classroom should be a place for debate. Universities and their campuses are places of learning. We learn by exercising our minds through analysis, synthesis, and creativity. Real intellectual growth comes from an open minded engagement with ideas, including those we vehemently disagree with. Learning can be painful. Comfortable and long held assumptions can sometimes be destroyed, revised, or totally thrown into doubt when we’re truly getting educated. This is something ideologues on the political right and the left struggle with. They come to a discussion with preset ideas and caked prejudices that aren’t open to revision…regardless of the evidence or good argument to the contrary. A problem with epistemic closure and an outright refusal to be convinced becomes a stone wall to any genuine learning or growth.
So when a professor or student group invites a guest speaker they should be allowed to speak uninterrupted. There should be no protests. The speaker, controversial or not, is a guest of the university and the students should mind their manners, act like proper scholars, and allow the speaker, regardless of how much the students may disagree with him or her, to make their presentation. Afterward, however, the speaker should be prepared for tough questions by the students in attendance. Students should show respect, but speakers should also be told that as a provision of speaking at the school the speaker must be willing answer questions from the audience. The give and take of learning requires this.
So when a controversial speaker is schedule to speak, students should read up on them and prepare hard questions. If you disagree with someone what better way “to protest” than to politely and respectfully ask a tough question that reveals the deep and obvious problems with a speaker’s beliefs or ideas. What better Youtube material can you ask for?
Now, what I said in the preceding refers to speakers invited to speak or lecture on a topic during the academic school year.
I take a somewhat different position as it relates to guest speakers for commencement day. Commencement day is strictly about the graduates. It’s their day. They have spent years writing papers, taking tests, debating, and arguing and now it’s time to celebrate and be inspired. It’s not a day for controversy or for inviting speakers who knowingly generate it. So I have no problem with graduating students protesting the invitation of a commencement speaker.
I think the names of guest speakers should be made available in advance as soon as possible. If some students feel strongly enough and want to protest then they should do so. It’s up to the faculty to decide what to do. If the school goes ahead and allows the controversial speaker to deliver their address, then I think the graduates should remain respectful for the sake of all present. At that point, protesting would be disrespectful and rude, not so much to the speaker, but to all the other graduates, guests, and parents in attendance.
So in the classroom and lecture hall I encourage students to protest by listening respectfully and then posing good, tough questions to controversial guest speakers. Don’t shut them down with open protests, challenge their views and ideas with intelligent questions!
But as it relates to commencement speakers, I encourage students to make their feelings known to the faculty and commencement organizers as soon as possible. Protesting the speaker’s invitation is certainly something they have a right to do before commencement day. If the protests are strong enough and broad enough then hopefully the school will listen and move on to inviting another speaker instead.
There are people who think that students should just accept the invitation of a controversial speaker, regardless of whether the graduating students want to hear from them or not on commencement day. I disagree entirely. Graduating students have earned and paid for the right to have a say in this celebration of their accomplishment. Controversy can wait for another time. That day is for coming together and celebrating.