Steve Melito: Intolerance in higher education
The graduate who booed the commencement speaker was unremarkable, a tepid version of the red-hot hecklers who burn politicians at campaign events. The speech by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was predictable, a doctrinaire call for Great Society liberalism. Last Sunday’s William College commencement was many things. Electrifying it was not.
If Michael Bloomberg’s Williams College speech is memorable in any way, it’s not because of what he said, but that he was allowed to speak at all. As reported in The Williams Record on April 23, angry protesters had taken to the steps of Chapin Hall. Bearing signs with slogans such as "Am I Williams?," the group condemned Bloomberg for stop-and-frisk, an NYPD practice that critics say targets minorities.
Bilal Ansari, the Muslim chaplain at Williams, denied that he wanted Williams to rescind its invitation to Bloomberg. Then he asked the administration to make the billionaire mayor the Baccalaureate speaker instead. "This is antithetical from the work of the college," Ansari said, before adding that a starring role for Bloomberg was "irresponsible, dismissive, and offensive to all of the students, staff and faculty who sacrifice their time at making Williams a place free of discrimination and a hospitable community to all."
Ansari has a right to his opinion, of course, but it underscores a larger point. How can a diverse society survive -- and thrive -- when too many academics seek to silence those with whom they disagree? Why should students believe campus leaders who, like Ansari, say they want "dialogue and unity," but then act as if their goal is to silence the free flow of ideas? For those who live outside the ivory tower, should we worry that intellectual intolerance could warp the best-and-brightest minds?
About the time that Bilal Ansari was talking to The Record, Jonah Goldberg of National Review came to Williamstown and spoke to a group called "Uncomfortable Learning." As Goldberg explained, "I gather that the group is called this because, at Williams, if your group sounds conservative or libertarian, then lots of students will simply tune out, shun, or dismiss you." Nevertheless, the room was jam-packed. "Kids find it easy to be close-minded about conservatism," Goldberg surmised, "but they are intrigued by ‘uncomfortable learning’. It sounds so subversive."
Sadly, intellectual subversion must be less intriguing at places like the University of Colorado at Boulder and Rutgers University. At hard-left Boulder, professors discouraged students from hearing Goldberg speak. At Rutgers, students and faculty never got to hear another of their ideological opponents, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speak at all. In the wake of student protests, Rice rescinded her acceptance of an invitation to speak at graduation.
Back in Berkshire County, Michael Bloomberg spoke freely. The National Rifle Association (NRA) didn’t convene a citizens’ militia, occupy the Williams campus, and demand that Bloomberg read the Second Amendment aloud. The soft drink industry didn’t flood the valley with sugary beverages to protest the mayor’s belief that he knows best what you should eat and drink. Libertarians didn’t picket at the library because stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional -- and the NSA is probably still reading your email.
Ultimately, the group that sought to silence Michael Bloomberg at Williams came from the political left, not the right. Ironically, the mayor’s speech honored two dead white guys, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, who probably wouldn’t even pass the litmus test of modern liberalism. Graduation season may be over, but the left’s intellectual intolerance endures. Teach your children well.
Steve Melito lives and owns a small business in Adams.