I've just read the transcript of Jean Rohe's controversial commencement speech at the New School- the speech where she pretty much tore into commencement keynoter Sen. John McCain for everything he believes in.
Near as I can tell, Rohe notes that her New School education prepared her, as well as her classmates, for listening to the viewpoints of those throughout the political spectrum, as well as having the courage to refute those views.
While Rohe most certainly had the right to speak at the ceremony, I disagree with the notion that Senator McCain should not have been invited. I believe the function of a commencement speaker is to be a type of welcomer-to-the-real world invocator, a welcomer with a preparatory message rather than one who merely rubber stamps the convictions of a majority of graduation-ceremony attendees.
I have never bought into the notion that a university commencement speaker should be aligned, or not aligned, with the prevailing political or social winds on that campus. Once you graduate, you will encounter those with different views. Why not have someone who will challenge your views engage your attention as you head out into that world? To me, that's much more intellectually challenging than listening to a commencement speaker that will make you feel good by reciting back everything you believe in.
My own experiences have led me to this belief. My university commencement speaker was the Rev. Billy Graham. I share little theologically and ideologically with Rev. Graham, but I remember listening that day and obtaining insight from the words of one who is revered by so many. Rev. Graham's remarks prepared me to go into a world where so many share his views. I am better informed for having heard his beliefs. When the need arises, I am also better prepared to refute them than I would have if he had not been invited.
It was on that day that I learned there is an intellectual rigor from an in-your-face challenge of assumptions that can be stimulating.
I would have hoped that the graduates at New School would have had the foresight to recognize similar potential to learn from Senator McCain.
Keep in mind that despite their ideological and party differences, New School president Bob Kerrey and McCain share a bond. Not only have both served in the Senate, Both served in Vietnam, and experienced their travails. Kerrey lost part of a leg, and McCain was imprisoned for 5 1/2 years.
I would think that someone with the character to stand up to his captors for that length of time, and then come home and conquer the physical and mental scars he endured, would be an inspirational story for any new graduate.
I would think that even the most left-wing graduate- and there are plenty of them at New School- would at least want to hear what McCain had to say. Even if just to understand a predominant political sentiment they will have to struggle and argue against once they are out in the world.
And what's the big problem in having a commencement speaker who is also scheduled to speak at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University? Sure, the prevailing political timbres at New School and Liberty are as different from each other as can be imagined, but if I were in that graduating class, I'd be honored to hear the words of a man who carries weight not only with the head of my progressive school, but with the guiding force behind that of a school whose teachings and political goals are diametrically opposed to mine.
As a parting note, I wonder what the reaction at New School would have been if someone such as Ward Churchill- known for his controversial remarks about 9/11- were invited.
Then again, I know what the predominant reaction would have been. "Academic freedom" would be the cry. And the students would be right to defend Ward Churchill's right to speak.
Just as right as they were wrong to shout down Sen. McCain.