Mike Pence and the Commencement Season

It’s not an easy time to be a college student with a political conscience.

Emboldened by the racial, gender and economic provocations of the current administration, Right Wing conservatives like Mike Pence are happy to use any microphone they find themselves standing in front of to rail against what they consider to be a virulent form of political correctness that’s sweeping across college campuses, turning them into so many cauldrons of overwrought liberalism.

That’s certainly what Pence was up to this past Sunday when he addressed graduates of the University of Notre Dame and, after congratulating the students and wishing them the best of luck, launched into an attack on so-called political correctness on college campuses.

Pence’s very presence at the ceremonies, his role in the current administration and his long history of anti-gay rhetoric and policies precipitated about 100 of the Notre Dame graduating class to walk out of the ceremony.

Conservatives looked at the students who walked out on Pence and cried out, “See, we told you! The fascist left can’t accept free speech on campus when that speech challenges their own beliefs.”

In context, though, the peaceful and orderly walk out by the Notre Dame students looks tame compared to a few campus incidents that occurred earlier this year and to which Pence was no doubt referring to in his comments.

Last March, students at Middlebury College disrupted a talk by the controversial sociologist, Charles Murray, and even went so far as to rough up one of the Middlebury faculty members who invited Murray to campus. Earlier in the year, protests against a scheduled talk by Milo Yiannopoulos turned violent at Berkeley and, more recently, Ann Coulter cancelled a scheduled visit to Berkeley because of threats of violence.

The reality, though, is that most college campuses are wastelands of political involvement and most students, cowed by ever-escalating costs of higher education and anxious about getting ahead in the business world are more interested finance and marketing than they are in violent or non-violent resistance to a corrupt political system.

Only 100 of the nearly 3,000 graduates at Notre Dame chose to walk out on Pence.  What do you think kept the rest of them in their seats?

I’m sure Facebook feeds, Twitter accounts and the blogs of the conservative media are filling up with exclamations about the disrespect that Notre Dame students showed to Pence. The truth, though, is that it’s the administrators and faculty members at Notre Dame who made the decision to invite Pence to commencement who are to blame.

Administrators at elite institutions have come to treat commencement as a kind of showcase of their own purchasing power. Commencement season has become a time of chest thumping as universities jockey for the most sought after speaker. What’s worse, political, cultural and entertainment luminaries are trotted out on the stage to speak the same old shibboleths. And, they are paid quite handsomely for their saccharine words.

What’s lost in this model of commencement invitations is the more civic-minded purpose of the commencement address. More than anything, commencement (or, the beginning) should be a time for university communities to come together, to celebrate the achievements of their graduating class, to thank the students, their families, staff and faculty for their work and dedication and to set the institution on course to fulfill the democratic mission of higher education in America.

Fat chance, though, of anything like that happening in the current American climate.

And it’s not that controversial ideas and people don’t have a place at commencement ceremonies, which are whitewashed enough with their inspirational platitudes. A strong and vibrant democracy accepts a wide diversity of political thought and astutely uses its collective acumen and wisdom to parse out alternative facts and heavily-laden ideological pronouncements.

Confident and mature people (and by extension, nations) actually seek out criticism as a way to get better.

No matter what you think of Mike Pence, by virtue of the fact that he’s aligned with #45, he is a divisive political figure who has a greater chance of offending audiences at a place like Notre Dame than he does of compelling them to think deeply and act in the world with a sense of justice and grace.

In that regard, it makes sense for a place like Liberty University to invite someone like #45 to its commencement ceremonies. Eighty percent of fundamentalist Christians who participated in the 2016 presidential election voted for the sitting president and given that the students who choose to attend Liberty are overwhelmingly evangelical Christians, why shouldn’t Liberty invite him to speak to its graduates?

For Notre Dame, a Catholic and purportedly global, outward looking and relatively ethnically diverse campus, to trot someone like Pence before the graduating class and its families seems like tone deafness at best and provocation at worse.

I’m still in Ireland, so I did not get to attend graduation ceremonies at my home institution, Regis University. Aside from seeing my students receive their diplomas, meeting their families and saying goodbye, I generally don’t look forward to commencement ceremonies. I was disappointed, though, to miss commencement this year because Regis invited Father Greg Boyle to address the graduating seniors.

Father Boyle, a Jesuit priest, founder of Homeboy Industries and the author of the great book, Tattoos on the Heart, is the kind of American we should set out to become. He’s funny, smart and worldly in his outlook, but more importantly, Father Boyle, through his long-standing commitment to serving communities of color and working on the front lines of gang violence in Los Angeles, is a paragon of decency and compassion.

Hats off to Regis for inviting Father Boyle and for demonstrating respect and compassion for our graduates and their families at this exciting time in their lives.

Before you post that photo . . .

Last week one my students, Brianna Barkocy, wrote a blog post about some questions that she’s been struggling with over the course of her time here in Ireland. To my mind, it’s a profound piece of thinking that asks difficult questions about what happens when we remove ourselves from the familiar and how social media allows us (if we let it) to inspire misperceptions of others as well as ourselves. I encourage you to read Bri’s piece.

Bri’s piece is interesting and useful because she gets underneath everyday life and she questions practices that are so quotidian that they seem normal. Upon closer inspection, though, these practices actually reveal something about our inner lives.

Bri describes a condition that she terms ‘social media travel.’ As she explains it, the social media traveler posts photos on her Facebook feed that show ‘ceaseless adventures into new landscapes.’ Here in Ireland, it’s the inevitable drinking a pint of Guinness in a pub, walking along the Cliffs of Moher or kissing the Blarney Stone.

Bri cautions us to ‘beware of the social media traveler,’ because behind that veil of good times is oftentimes someone who is homesick, bored, lonely, tired and afraid to show the world the challenges anxieties of traveling abroad.

On the surface, Bri’s piece is an honest look at some of the pitfalls of living and studying abroad. What it really does, though, is lay bare some essential and difficult questions regarding the nature of our lives, especially what happens in those moments when things get really quiet, our minds start to wonder and we are left with ourselves alone. Travel does that to you, if you let it.

We enjoyed a robust conversation about Bri’s blog post in class the other night. At one point in the conversation, one of the students, Molly, raised her hand and said, “Bri, this is a really important piece and I think everyone who studies abroad at Regis should read it.” As Molly was finishing the sentence, though, her voice trailed off, she paused and then concluded, “No, never mind, you know what, I don’t think it’s possible to understand what you are saying until you have been abroad for a while. People will just have to figure this out on their own.” I loved Molly’s comment for its pure phenomenological insight: you have to experience the world on your own terms to really understand it.

I suppose that the phenomenon of the social media traveler that Bri identifies is shared across nations and cultures, but I don’t know enough about the minds of people from other places to say whether that’s so, or not. I do think, though, that there is something terribly American about Bri’s piece and what I perceive as our dread of quiet, of being alone and of loneliness. As Bri so eloquently writes, social media travel allows us to fill a void and to do it in a rather unconscious manner. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course–travel in particular and life in general should be joyful and exciting so by all means, keep posting those shots of you skiing through powder, enjoying a cocktail on a beach and hiking through the woods!  But, as Bri notices, social media often acts as a cover for our fear of making ourselves vulnerable, of telling people things they might not want to hear and of revealing our anxieties and second thoughts.

I appreciate the unvarnished honesty of Bri’s post and it highlights of the reasons I still enjoy teaching after 22 years: I find myself continually inspired by young people like Bri, who is just one of twelve wonderful Regis University students studying here at the University of Maynooth this semester. They are all writing blogs and they are all producing thoughtful and entertaining vignettes of their lives here in Ireland.

You can find all of their collected blogs here on our class blog spot.

The Academy in the New America

I’ve always had a kind of lover’s quarrel with the American university and it seems to flare up in times of national crisis.

During the fall semester of 2001, I was teaching in the American Thought and Language department at Michigan State University. The day after 9/11 I walked into class and stared at a class of dazed 20-somethings. We did our best to try and make sense of what happened the day before but mostly, we just shook our heads in disbelief. Toward the end of class I asked the students what professors in their other classes were saying about the terror attacks. Most of the students replied that their classes were going on as if nothing happened and most of the students were disturbed that some of their professors pressed on with their lectures in the face of the attacks.  I know that wasn’t true for all classes across American universities, and I’m not judging the professors who chose not to discuss the attacks.

I think it’s pretty clear, though, that as a whole, the American university did basically nothing to deal with the national trauma of 9/11 aside from capitalize on the billions of federal dollars dedicated to the construction of the surveillance state by launching programs in Homeland Security and National Defense. There’s a legitimate argument, of course, that those efforts have paid off. Still, beyond some bells tolling on campuses every 9/11, can we honestly say the American university effectively responded to the crisis (and its aftermath)? The current generation of college students know virtually nothing about what happened on 9/11, why it happened nor the subsequent war(s) America has been waging in the middle east.

And it does raise the question about the role of the American university in times of national crisis.

Like the one we’re in right now.

I’ve been teaching abroad for nearly a year now, but I keep wondering what it’s like to be in a university classroom in the States. Are professors changing the content of their courses in order to reflect the seismic shifts taking place in American politics and culture?

Should we?

Are the shelves of university book stores filled with Orwell, Huxley and Hannah Arendt? (To my mind, science fiction is the only thing that really speaks to what’s happening right now.)

Are faculty and students talking about and reasoning through about what’s happening in America? Or, is Allison Stanger’s description of the recent mob violence that erupted at Middlebury College over a lecture by the controversial political scientist, Charles Murray, evidence to how far civic discourse has devolved, even in academia?

Are there newly-formed ‘task forces’ and ‘steering committees’ charged with developing university responses to the threats to the republic or even just helping ordinary people understand that it’s the rich white billionaires and not the blacks and the Indians and the Muslims and the Mexicans who are the problem?

Or, are things pretty much as they’ve always been, aside from some sarcastic remarks at the beginning of every class about the latest tweet?

I love my academic ‘interests’ just as much as any other professor. Reading and talking with young people about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lincoln’s speeches, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and the songs of Nina Simone and Woody Guthrie is an abiding privilege and joy for me, and I never take for it for granted. But I realize, too, that my work in particular and the work of the American university in general is a part of something much bigger than narrow academic specialization and knowledge production. As a professor in American higher education, I have, in other words, a duty and an obligation (however ill- and nebulously-defined) to write and educate for the common good. I know that sounds idealistic (forgive me!) but I also know that most of my colleagues feel the same way, more or less.

I don’t, however, know how to move forward with my teaching and scholarly life in this new American any more than I did in the aftermath of 9/11.

If you do, or even if you disagree with that premise, I’d love to hear about it.