Commencement Speakers & Student Protests


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. 

Remembering Shakespeare and the Arts

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts. — William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare (photo: Wiki)

Today is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. I was reminded by a New Yorker piece I read over morning coffee. It got me to thinking about my first “encounter” with Shakespeare.

Most of us educated in the Western world, especially in the English speaking nations, probably remember an English class where you had to read and discuss a Shakespearian tragedy, history, or comedy. I suspect the tragic plays, if any at all, are probably more remembered than any of the other plays: works like Julius Caesar, MacBeth, Othello, and King Lear. There’s a greater weight and imprint to the tragic sense of life. It’s always there, just below the surface, working sadly.

I first experienced Shakespeare’s plays in a high school English class. The most cogent memory is of Mr. Snodgrass’s class at F.W. Cox High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The course instruction was memorable only in the sense that I was so bored. It was hard to stay awake. I seem to recall Mr Roper calling on me just to make sure I was awake. I was not as good as many of the other guys in class at hiding it. Shakespeare’s idioms and word play required too much thought and had no relevance to my life or my future. Just like those complicated math classes…it was a waste of my time!

Or so my teenage mind thought at the time.

College was a little better. A little more maturity, mixed with the exposure to other interrelated liberal arts courses and, more importantly, excellent teachers, stirred my interest in the subtleties, meaning, and value of the arts. Reading Shakespeare in college was, well, an eye opening experience for me. I don’t recall the instructors name, though I can still see and hear him in my mind. With him Shakespeare came alive and spoke to me. I began to see, and more importantly in art, to feel and appreciate the artistry and creativeness of Shakespeare’s genius.

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Sure, a psychologists, using different words, would tell you these very basic things: your perceptions construct your world. Most of us understand that. But the scientist couldn’t say it with the poetic depth of a Shakespeare! And believe me when I say delivery absolutely influences receptivity.

Art is the mirror of life as the saying goes. The artist is simply holding up that mirror—words, imagines, and provoked emotions—to stir your soul. Because the active soul engages. And that’s what art, ultimately, is about. Art is about engaging your intellect and emotions so you can see and feel the world differently.  

The History Core


There are certain aspects in the study of History that are blatantly factual, but Histories and Biographies are primarily interpretations. The examination of historical events and the lives of individuals is more art than science, and the final product is more a tentative argument than a final conclusion. That doesn’t mean we should consider all historical analysis and scholarship as relative. That would be a mistake. Not all arguments are equally valid or probable based on the historical evidence. The tentative nature of historical knowledge doesn’t minimize the edification gained from studying history or biography, because this interpretive process sharpens critical thinking and evaluation skills. It forces us to judge, weigh, and consider. It exercises the very process of thinking that will guide most of the decisions in our lives. This is the core of what a liberal arts education is about: the making of an autonomous and free soul, able to make informed and un-coerced decisions.

Debts and Lessons

college classroomWe all have debts, and most of them aren’t financial either. I realized one recently while I was reading Gregory Hays’s translation of Marcus Aurelius’s ancient philosophical journal, the Meditations. Book one of the Meditations begins with a section entitled “Debts and Lessons.” In this section Marcus briefly summarizes the positive things he learned from various people in his life while growing up, and this got me to thinking about a debt I have from an earlier time in my life.

I went to college like so many high school graduates because I wanted to “get an education” and then get a job. At the time, of course, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life; most of us aren’t at that age. And I wasn’t sure exactly what getting educated really meant. So I began college by signing up for a number of general education courses at the local community college. One of the courses was Philosophy 101. At the time, I didn’t know much about philosophy and didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I did know that “Phil 101” was available and it fulfilled my general education requirements. The course description also made taking philosophy seem like a no brainer. The course catalog described the study of philosophy something like this:

The study of philosophy serves to develop intellectual abilities important for life as a whole, beyond the knowledge and skills required for any particular profession. Properly pursued, it enhances analytical, critical, and interpretive capacities that are applicable to any subject-matter, and in any human context. It cultivates the capacities and appetite for self-expression and reflection, for exchange and debate of ideas, for life-long learning, and for dealing with problems for which there are no easy answers. It also helps to prepare one for the tasks of citizenship. Participation in political and community affairs today is all too often insufficiently informed, manipulable and vulnerable to demagoguery. A good philosophical education enhances the capacity to participate responsibly and intelligently in public life. — The American Philosophical Association (APA)

After reading a course description like this I was sold. It sounded like what getting educated was all about. (To this day I would say the description above is the best and most accurate way of describing the benefits of a philosophical education.) Philosophy 101 was an introductory course, but I suspect it might have been the only philosophy course some of my unsuspecting classmates completed. Philosophy isn’t easy, even at the introductory level. You have to do something a lot of people at that young age aren’t always ready to do, and that involves thinking deeply and critically. It’s mental work of the highest order. You don’t take Philosophy “for fun” or an “easy three credits.” Those who did were quickly disabused of the notion. You stayed in the class either out of genuine intellectual interest, necessity, or sheer determination. Ultimately, if you stayed and pushed yourself it was very rewarding.

The instructor was Tom Hilton. As I recall, he was relatively new to the college (As of this writing he is still teaching there.). He was a soft spoken man with an easy manner and a gentle approach to teaching. He had a genuine love for philosophy and was a natural teacher. He made the class interesting and engaged us intellectually. He made us think in ways many of us hadn’t even vaguely reckoned at that age. Using the Socratic Method, he forced us to stretch our minds—to examine, to question, to think, to learn, and most of all, to grow. The English word “education” is a derivation of the Latin verb educes, which means “to draw forth from within.” Mr. Hilton was indeed educating us, he was prodding us to engage and exercise our critical abilities. At least that’s how I felt in his class. The very best teachers are those who can get you to engage the subject and think deeply about ideas. That’s how you grow intellectually. It has the potential to change your life. It certainly had an affect on mine.

I took two more philosophy classes from Mr. Hilton. I took Philosophy 102 and a class called Practical Reasoning. Philosophy 102 covered the existentialists. It was a very interesting and very challenging intellectually. I actually still have the text book. Existentialism is very deep, it took some real effort to understand the thoughts of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Buber, and Heidegger. As with all theoretical philosophy, you had to follow extended lines of reasoning and conceptual complexity. You had to sweat, mentally.  I remember being particularly fascinated by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. At first I struggled to see through the words to the ideas, but slowly the mental fog evaporated and I began to recognize (I believe) the deep meaning and genius of their work.

Practical Reasoning class was another awakening experience. Mr. Hilton taught us the structure of a good argument and how to detect a bad one. We learned basic logic and how to recognize the vast array of logical fallacies most people bring into everyday discussions and arguments. Mr. Hilton usually began the class with having individual students read articles from The Virginian Pilot newspaper. He would then lead the class in anatomizing the statements and arguments made by the author to determine if they were logically sound and, well, reasonable. The course made me realize just how illogical, and at times totally unreasonable, most of us can be in our everyday thinking; a realization that has been sadly confirmed—tragically and humorously—over and over throughout the years since. The theoretical philosophy I’d learned so far was interesting, but it was this course that really brought philosophy down to earth. All of us, every day, must navigate arguments. These arguments come in many forms, from TV commercial, to newspapers, the political discussion at lunch, to an employee’s explanation (or spin) of an event or problem. All of them are laced with arguments. By “argument” I mean attempts to persuade you. TV commercials about buying a product are, rhetorically, an argument for you to buy something. Our daily life is filled with arguments of some type, situations that require us (if we’re conscious) to reason effectively and decide.

Philosophy is a hard subject to define. In ancient Greek philosophia simply meant “a love of wisdom.” The ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle philosophized on just about everything. No set of ideas or inquiry was off limits, all domains of knowledge were open to inquiry. I still see the task of philosophy as Aristotle did: a synoptic vision of reality. There’s no exact, settled modern definition of philosophy. Over the centuries philosophy bracketed into various sub disciplines and schools of thought. Look at this Wiki page and you’ll see just why philosophy was once called the “Queen of all Sciences.” Philosophy is really about everything.

After Mr. Hilton’s class I began reading philosophy on my own. I spent years reading through various works of Philosophy. I didn’t end up with a degree in philosophy if you’re wondering. My graduate and undergraduate degrees are actually in management. Both of my degree programs, however, were Liberal Arts based and did contain courses in ethics. Of course I really enjoyed those courses because the discussions centered on philosophical theories and the philosophers who constructed them. I was also fortunate in graduate school to have some very fine professors for those courses. (My hat’s off to Professors Stephen Vicchio and Christopher “Aristotle is the man” Dreisbach of Johns Hopkins University, two exceptional human beings, teachers, and mentors.)

I don’t read very much pure (or theoretical) philosophy now. The truth is, as Moses Mendelssohn once said about one of Immanuel Kant’s books, it “consumes the fluid of the nerves.” You have to be in a certain mindset for that type of reading and thinking. I’m talking primarily about epistemology and logic. I still read and enjoy the practical philosophers like Aristotle, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius & Cicero, along with the many modern philosophers. Practical philosophers are generally interested in politics, ethics, society, personal development, and many other practical affairs. It’s reading that has a direct impact on my thinking. And of course my interest in philosophy naturally led me into many other areas of the humanities, especially history.

So it was Mr. Hilton, in that community college class room (circa 1987), who first sparked my interest in philosophy, ideas, and great thinkers. It hasn’t provided me with any professional status or fame, but it has shaped my perspective in many positive ways and enriched my life. It was, as Mark Twain said, a “conspicuous link” in the chain of my being and for that I’m very thankful to Tom Hilton.