The graduates at the historically black Bethune-Cookman University were presented with a unique opportunity to hear a speech from our sitting secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Students drowned out DeVos while she talked about being solution-oriented instead of drumming up conflict with folks with whom one disagrees. That a college administrator had to address a group of recent graduates as if they were raucous high schoolers illustrates how infantilized American college students have become.
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) May 11, 2017
After the protesting students, who the school administration numbers at approximately 20, 13 of whom were escorted out of the ceremony, met public criticism for their behavior, more than 200 black university professors signed a public letter supporting their actions.
“The world watched you protest the speaker you never should have had,” the letter says. “We cheered as we saw so many of you refuse to acquiesce in the face of threats and calls for complicity. Your actions fit within a long tradition of Black people fighting back against those who attack our institutions and our very lives with their anti-Black policies and anglo-normative practices. Betsy DeVos’ commitment to dismantling public education and her egregious framing of historically Black colleges and universities as ‘pioneers’ in school choice are just two examples of why she should never have been invited to speak at an event celebrating Black excellence.”
Wrong. It does not matter what your opinion is of Betsy DeVos, booing her during a speech is disrespectful. There has always been a trickle-down from predominantly white colleges to historically black colleges. The worse of these has been a blatant contempt for people who represent contrasting viewpoints.
Of course no one will ever actually know where other people stand on any given issue if only a select few are allowed to voice their perspectives. Being intellectually lazy has become the standard, and too many people are comfortable allowing their favorite news filters to determine what they believe.
School Choice Benefits People Like Me
An earlier benign statement from DeVos praising historically black colleges and universities as an example of the power of school choice received several anecdotal responses. Here is mine in support of HBCUs as contemporary vehicles for choice in higher education.
As an 18-year-old graduating from a predominantly black high school in suburban Illinois, I had a few choices for college: Play football at a small college, take a modest academic scholarship to attend The University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign, or accept a more substantial academic scholarship to attend Morehouse College. I chose the latter because my father, my mentor, and I agreed that I would get a fine education for a good price at a school with an environment I would feel comfortable in.
While of course the same will not be true for all black Americans and indeed some of my most successful former classmates are U of I graduates, I wouldn’t trade my experience at the small, all-male HBCU for anything. As a proud HBCU graduate, I hate to see students graduating from a college like mine fall into the same rut I’ve seen at the predominantly white university I attend for graduate school.
Denying people the right to present their ideas is antithetical to academic rigor. At least the administrators at Bethune-Cookman showed a little spine compared to their larger university counterparts. We should praise HBCUs like Talladega College for taking an unpopular stancein accepting an invitation to perform at President Trump’s inauguration, even if we disagree.
True Growth Comes from Challenging Yourself
There is value in knowing the other side of an argument. It allows for true thinking. One must challenge his or her idiosyncratic presuppositions at all cost. The real battle of intellectualism occurs within the arena of one’s own mind. It is the only way to discern what one actually believes. This is how people become truly useful.
Of course most of us would rather just rehash and repeat what we have heard our favorite pundits say. Instead, I recommend people find an argument, then read a book and listen to a person speak in favor of that argument. Next, read a book and listen to a person speak in opposition to that argument. If a person does this a few hundred times, chances are that person might actually be capable of thinking. It is possible to come away from this process with unchanged feelings, but any arguments will be stronger thanks to a better understanding of the topic.
I read The New Yorker and The New York Times exclusively for ten years. I didn’t stop reading those periodicals; I just added National Review and Townhall to my daily reading list. People are easier to control when they are incapable of thinking for themselves. Establishing original ideas is an arduous undertaking but ideas forged by fire are the only things capable of shining light through the darkness.
Black Radicalism Is Not Monolithic
The black radical tradition in America has a rich and interesting history. It contains noble figures like Bayard Rustin and a few not so noble figures. It is partially rooted in Marxist doctrine and more contemporary perspectives in post-modernism. Like any other belief system, it has as many derivations as it has believers.
Rustin, for example, was an ardent supporter of liberty, and his brand of radicalism doesn’t quite resemble the silence-your-opposition type that pervades college campuses today. The value a collectivist black identity has for any particular end, such as economic advancement for black Americans, is up for debate.
You will find many different arguments concerning what role radical blackness may play in contemporary America. Protesting has a certain value in a free society, but not all protests are created equal. Those designed to limit the free expression of ideas by silencing keep those participating in the protest willfully ignorant.
It doesn’t matter if the campus is covered in ivy if the buildings are on fire. While those at the so-called “elite” colleges are fashioning themselves to be useless, it is up to us less-privileged citizens to reorient the culture of the country. Those who wish to carry on the black radical tradition should do so knowing it requires a high degree of effort. Don’t adopt the lazy belief that silencing opposing viewpoints is any way to carry on a useful intellectual tradition.
People should save booing for entertainment. It’s best to face opportunities to learn something with open ears and shut mouths.