Condi at Rutgers: Higher Education and the Partisan Fantasy

I have only heard a U.S. president speak once in my life. It was in the summer of 1992. George Bush, père decided to start his re-election campaign by speaking at BYU, where I was a graduate student in English. At the time, I despised George Bush and everything he stood for: Reaganomics, the First Iraq War, and of course the recession. But I still thought it was exciting that the President of the United States was coming to my school, and I gladly stood in line for hours in order to get to see him.

It did not even occur to me to do what the students and faculty of Rutgers University did this week when Stanford University professor and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was announced as the keynote speaker for the Spring Commencement. They protested and staged sit-ins. They waved signs that said “No honors for war criminals.” And, regrettably, they won.

Those who protested Condi Rice in 2014, like those who protested Barack Obama in 2009, operate from the assumption that colleges should protect students from incorrect or dangerous ideas.
Michael Austin
Rice, on Saturday, announced that she was declining the invitation to speak at Rutgers.

This is not the first time that this has happened, nor is it the first political persuasion to be on the receiving end of such intolerance. When President Obama spoke at Notre Dame in 2009, conservative Catholics across the country demanded that the invitation be rescinded, claiming that it was patently unacceptable for the nation’s most well-known Catholic school to allow a president who supported abortion rights to speak on their campus.

Those who protested Condi Rice in 2014, like those who protested Barack Obama in 2009, operate from the assumption that colleges should protect students from incorrect or dangerous ideas. This is a tragic misunderstanding of the purpose of education, and it leads to a dangerously restrictive understanding of the way that ideas should be treated in a democracy.

Let’s start with the way that education is supposed to work. I have spent all of my adult life at colleges and universities, and I currently have the primary responsibility for approving speakers on our campus. Sometimes we have speakers that I love and agree with. Sometimes we have speakers that I object to on ten different levels at once.

When we bring a speaker to our campus, we are not endorsing that person’s message, their life history, or the positions we have taken in the past. We are, rather, endorsing the idea that a university of education should expose students to a broad spectrum of ideas and experiences.

One of the great advantages of going to a large school like Rutgers or Notre Dame is that these schools have the resources to bring students in contact with people who are, or have been, at the center of the great events of our time: world leaders, great artists, major industrialists, and general movers and shakers of the zeitgeist—people like Barack Obama and Condoleezza Rice. One need not agree with these people to learn from them, hear them out, and try to understand how they located and manipulated the levers of power that made them major world leaders in their time. A really good education should do things like that.

Even more importantly, however, a really good education should encourage students to listen to people they disagree with. This has been one of the casualties of the information age. Those of us who grew up with three TV stations, three national news magazines, and a local paper remember when “being informed” meant reading and listening to a lot of things that we did not agree with. This was just a function of the limited choices in media and information.

As information options have exploded, we have come to expect that blogs, books, magazines, and TV programs that constantly confirm whatever we happen to believe. When a source fails to do this, we become indignant and find another one—but usually not before we to the comment section and rant about how unacceptable it is that Fox, or MSNBC, or IVN would allow itself to be party to something so outrageous and beyond the pale as an article or opinion that we disagree with.

This all proceeds from what I have called in other posts The Partisan Fantasy: the idea that everything would be better if the people who disagreed with us would simply stop existing. Those who buy in to the partisan fantasy do the sorts of things I am talking about here. They criticize colleges for allowing “the enemy” to speak, they boycott news sources who cover (or fail to cover) certain stories, they unsubscribe to newspapers and magazines that endorse candidates they don’t like, and they do everything in their power to foster the non-existence of ideas that they don’t agree with.

This rarely works out well for the ultimate goals of either education or democracy.