The following is an op-ed I published this morning in the Washington Post. It is based on my remarks at the Wesleyan commencement this year.
I’ve been a university president for almost 20 years now, and each spring I stand at the podium to address graduating students and their families. The climate on campus is always festive, but this year, we can’t help but be affected by the pollutants of cynicism and craven disregard for principle in our national atmosphere. The Trump White House has set the tone, and far too many politicians and pundits are dancing to the tune. Graduating students will be entering a world in which invective, insult and manipulation threaten to become the norm. These are antithetical to the inquiry, compromise and reflection that are crucial to democratic governance and to a liberal education that aims at empowerment through learning.
I’m hopeful that students graduating this spring, regardless of what they’ve studied, do feel empowered and that their capacity for inquiry, compromise and reflection has been enhanced by their college years. Empowerment was what W.E.B. Du Bois looked for in the best of American education. He knew that people had to earn a living, but he believed that a truly pragmatic education would not just prepare someone to fit in to an existing occupational slot. A true education would increase one’s abilities to act purposefully as a citizen, a neighbor and family member as well as an economic provider. Inquiry, compromise and reflection are essential ingredients for the development of these abilities.
As president of a residential university, I know that when an education is successful, students find satisfaction in the search for better ideas and find meaning in the pursuit of ways of living that will be in accord with deeply held values. And when they find their own values to be in conflict with those held by others, their education turns them to inquiry, compromise and reflection either to resolve those conflicts or to learn how to live in peace with them. In this regard, the campus is an oasis, not where students are coddled, but where they develop skills to deal with the differences among people that beyond the university are usually met by cynical disregard or avoided through economic and cultural segregation.
One doesn’t need to believe in an absolute Truth in order to commit oneself to inquiry, compromise and reflection, although many of our students surely do have such beliefs. One does need to consider the possibility that one might be wrong, that one might be blind to other possibilities, other ways of living. If you think you might be wrong, you need other people with ideas different from your own in order to consider a range of alternatives. That’s one of the reasons diversity, including intellectual diversity, is so important. Listening seriously to others and trying to understand why they hold the views they do without immediately judging those views – this is at the core of pragmatic liberal education.
In the United States, we now live under an anti-educational regime. President Trump’s disregard for facts didn’t prevent him from being elected, of course, but that doesn’t mean as educators we should give him a pass when he lies, when he incites hatred, or when he engages in reckless behavior that undermines the very notion of learning from one’s mistakes. Even many who supported candidate Trump have been revolted by his intemperate, cruel and dangerous rhetoric, and by some of his policies. To call attention to this degradation of our culture is not to support political correctness, but to support our ability to learn from one another.
One of the reasons I love being a university president is that I learn so much from the enthusiasms, convictions, and reasoned arguments of our students – be they addressing the racist evils of mass incarceration or the persistent poison of sexual violence. Religious students have shown me what it means to integrate faith and inquiry, and conservative students have taught me to be mindful that even well-intentioned policies can undermine individual freedom and group identity. There have been many times when our campus community seems to come together in recognition of unjust situations that need fixing, but it has also been clear that there can be plenty of disagreement about what would constitute real solutions that don’t themselves create even graver injustices. On our best days, we are able to explore our differences without fear, just as we are able to work toward positive change with courage. A campus is the place to explore difference, to have one’s ways of thinking tested – not just protected.
Healthy student cultures at colleges and universities are generous, even as they are critical; they are open to inquiry and compromise even though they sometimes erupt into loud demands for tangible change. I don’t see only coddled snowflakes or ironic hipsters dominating these cultures. Instead, I find many studious undergrads taking time to work with refugees around the world or making room in their schedules to tutor poor children in local elementary schools. I find athletic teams raising money for cancer research, and activists volunteering their time to tutor incarcerated men and women. At campuses across the country, students are working to reduce suffering and to create opportunity.
In this time of rampant cynicism and flamboyant government corruption, students across the country are refusing to retreat from the public sphere. They refuse the dismissal of norms for telling the truth or the labeling of anything one doesn’t like as “fake.” They refuse stifling limitations on speech and action by creatively responding to changing community norms. They refuse the caricature of political correctness by listening carefully to those with whom they disagree, prepared to broaden their thinking rather than merely reinforcing their pre-conceived notions.
In graduation ceremonies around the country, oldsters like me are called upon to offer a few words of wisdom. The wisest words I can think of given our national context are ones our students already know well: inquiry, compromise and reflection. These are words they are turning into action at schools around the country. Having learned to work across differences, they are finding ways to go beyond cynicism to build a better future. Wise beyond their years.
Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. His most recent books are “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” and “Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”