Lois M. Collins: Commencement season question: Shall we only listen to the voices in our own heads?

Published: Tuesday, May 20 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Commencement speakers are backing out or being pushed off the program, raising questions about the role of diverse opinions in the education marketplace.

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When I headed off to college many years ago, my mom warned me not to let the liberal ideas that float around a university campus change my basic belief system.

My dad told me to embrace all the ideas I could wrap my head around — to listen to disagreements and their individual supporting arguments, to pay attention to ideas that were counter to mine and to walk away more informed and better able to articulate my views on the world. Being wrong and changing one’s mind is not a bad thing, either, he said.

They were both right, their advice not as opposite as it sounds. Mom was telling me that I know who I am and others don’t have a right to change that. Dad was telling me it’s not only okay to step outside my own head and expose myself to other ideas, but that it’s an important thing to do. Traditionally, that has been one of the values of a college education.

I’ll give my own daughters the same advice as they head for college in the next couple of years, but I’m not sure they’ll find it’s even doable as it was when I was in school.

The last week has brought a great deal of coverage on protests, “disinvitations” and withdrawals of commencement speakers at colleges around the country. It has been discussed by the Wall Street Journal , Washington Post, New York Times, Fox, The Today Show and others.

In an opinion piece on Time.com, Greg Lukianoff, founder of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), writes: “A scholarly community should approach speakers with even radically different points of view as opportunities to be engaged, not as a political loss that must be avoided at all costs. Exercising a little intellectual humility might lead students and faculty away from asking ‘What can I do to get rid of the speaker?’ and towards ‘What might I learn if I hear this person out?’ After all, if you’re only willing to hear from people with whom you agree, it’s far less likely you will learn new things.”

Lukianoff calls it the “right not to be offended” and it’s rampant in our society, dumbing down discussion on important topics. What about those of us —I believe we are massive in number but perhaps too quiet — who find it offensive that we’re not viewed as capable of hearing from someone who has different ideas without melting like chocolate kisses in the sun? Are we to only be allowed to hear from the likes of Big Bird, who spoke during commencement at Villanova a decade ago? Is anyone else too controversial? We all have opinions.

NBC News published a list of 11 planned commencement speakers who either backed out or were told they were not welcome, for various reason, some more understandable than others. They included former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, former World Bank President Robert Zoellick, actor James Franco and game show host Ben Stein, among others.

Schools have a right not to feature speakers who represent core values those schools don’t embrace. No one expects a Catholic or evangelical university to invite a strong abortion advocate to speak, for example. But the time to figure that out would be before the invitation is issued.

Student protest is an honored tradition, even here. That was one thing my very conservative mother was adamant about: When you find something you believe in, stand up for it publicly, proudly and loudly.

She did not, however, add: Unless I disagree with you. In that case, be quiet.

Fear of protest, though, should not be a gigantic mute button. If we each listen only to those with whom we agree all of the time, we will have no one with whom to converse. It’s the recipe for a very stunting existence.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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