President Chabotar’s Charge to the Class of 2012
A Call for Diversity of Ideas
Diversity is a core value of Guilford College. It challenges this community to welcome a variety of persons and perspectives.
The “persons” part of diversity centers on gender, race, religion, sexual identity, and a galaxy of other demographics that this College takes very seriously. Our diversity plan is among the most comprehensive in America. In almost every way, Guilford College is more diverse than our peers and the goals we set in 2005. Beyond numbers, diversity also means an inclusive culture where everyone feels respected and has equal access to recognition and power.
Today, let’s talk about diversity of “perspectives,” and how we welcome them too. Every college and university has: Democrats and Republicans, environmentalists and developers, occupiers and capitalists, vegetarians and carnivores, and fans of Fox News and NPR. Diversity is a matter of listening to all sides with deference and a mind that is open to new ideas. University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins argued that: “Education is a kind of continuing dialogue, and a dialogue assumes different points of view.”
Don’t misunderstand me: there are still rights and wrongs, and self-evident truths: hate speech is evil, evolution happened, the earth circles the sun, and the Red Sox are the best team in baseball. Apart from those absolutes, isn’t being a sanctuary for unfettered dialogue the essence of a college education?
It is in theory but not always in practice, including here. Face it. Some believe that Guilford College is a left-wing echo chamber where it is easier to be accepted if you are a social activist who abhors capitalism, sports, and the American flag. It’s not wrong to hold those views but it is wrong to think that only those views are proper or that Guilford is really that much of a one-party state. It’s also perplexing given how much our Quaker founders risked in promoting peace and tolerance.
When I came to Guilford in 2002, I heard about a short-lived tradition of the men’s soccer team to rise before dawn on February 6 and chalk the campus to commemorate Ronald Reagan’s birthday. They did it, one claimed, to annoy the hippies. Why must we take precautions against disruptions when we invite Tony Blair or Ralph Reed to speak but not Bill Clinton? A parent walked out on me because he claimed that his daughter was not sent here to have her hardcore socialism questioned or even discussed. Yet, having your beliefs challenged might change them or just make them stronger. President Kennedy reminded us that: “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”
Other institutions wrong-headedly embrace the other extreme. State legislatures and boards of trustees threaten loss of tenure or expulsion for being gay, opposing war, promoting choice, protesting economic inequality or questioning authority. They hallucinate that smart liberal kids become coddled academics or social workers and smart conservatives go into business and make money. They miss opportunities like the majestic generosity of Guilford students increasing their own activity fees to provide financial aid for the neediest among them.
Growing up, my family perpetually argued. Both parents believed that FDR was a covert communist. Their Disneyland was small government and low taxes. During the 1960 Presidential election, I was a 9th grader in a very Catholic high school. But I publicly supported not John F. Kennedy but Richard Nixon. What was I thinking?
Then, in college and graduate school, ideas about politics and religion were tossed about like Frisbees. Ah, I remember those 3 a.m. debates in the dorm about existential questions like “If God can do anything, could he make a stone so large that even He could not move it?” I journeyed from a right wing Republican to an Independent who is an economic conservative and social liberal. At Syracuse University, I joined a March on Washington against the Vietnam War. Of course, I still had enough Republican DNA that I did not hitch hike to DC or sleep in a Church with my friends. I flew first class and bedded at something like the Ritz Carlton.
So how do we promote diversity of ideas?
Think it possible you might be mistaken. To paraphrase Churchill, truth is like an elusive butterfly—gleaming, fluttering, settling for an instant with wings fully spread to the sun, then vanishing in the shades of the forest. What you believe depends on the slanting glimpses you had of the color of his wings.
Avoid groupthink where everyone shares the same beliefs or think they do. Faculty, staff, and even students in trendy, self-validating clusters tend to believe that the people around them are roughly representative of the general society. This assumption is habitually wrong, but tough to overcome because it is so comforting.
One study claimed that among a segment of professors at Cal Berkeley, for example, there were 172 Democrats versus 7 Republicans. No wonder they couldn’t comprehend how George Bush could be president. The Class of 2012 is privileged. Another study asserted that if you had chosen your twelve closest friends randomly from the American population, the odds that half of them would be college graduates would be six in a thousand.
Dump the stereotypes. Dave Barry and others ask if we really believe all red-state residents are dumb, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, NASCAR-obsessed, gun-fondling, Bible-bullying, redneck, sweatshop tycoons who claim government doesn’t work, and then get elected and prove it; or that all blue-state residents are godless, unpatriotic, ear-pierced, Volvo-driving, latte-sucking, tofu-chomping, tax-crazed, bleeding-hearts who presume people shouldn’t have to work and beg our enemies, “Please don’t hurt me.”
Seek out people with different beliefs. People want to be around others who think and act like themselves. That’s mislabeled “community.” Imagine what a cataract of horrors it would be for some Harvard professors to be on the same faculty with a member of the National Rifle Association or Tea Party. But beyond that difficulty lies an opportunity for dialogue, understanding, and compromise. Imagine if the politicians in Washington could collaborate to get something done rather than demonize each other, spew half-truths, and bankrupt us all. Like Mark Twain, ”Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.”
Protect the rights of others to be different. Conformity imprisons liberty. Don’t be a hostage to prejudice or a bystander to intolerance. Get in the way. Remember what Voltaire said about dissent: “I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Diversity of ideas. That’s my charge to the Class of 2012. I hope it made you think and maybe even a bit uneasy. Your Guilford College education has been about not just knowledge and skills but also getting out of your comfort zone to be someone willing to change and eager to become better. Hold on to that. Good luck. God bless you.
As prepared for delivery at Commencement on May 5, 2012