Commencement Civility

At this time of year Americans come together on college campuses all across the country to celebrate and honor all the young people who have successfully completed their college careers. Commencement speakers are given the time honored role of sending these young people off into the world with an inspiring speech urging them to reach for the stars and fulfill their potential. As commencement season has moved forward articles and sound bites from campuses around the country have made it clear that civility has been a topic at many of these ceremonies. This is not surprising given the political climate we experienced during, and after, the 2016 presidential election cycle.

At LaGrange College in Georgia, for example, US District Court Judge Richard W. Story, an alumnus, stated “The sad truth is that we have lost our sense of civility. We can no longer engage in meaningful decisions about substantive issues without having those discussions descend into bitter personal attacks. We have lost the ability to listen to one another with an open mind, and are unwilling to consider that we could possibly be wrong about a matter.”

Meg Whitman, President and CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprises, offered this advice to the graduating class at Carnegie Mellon University: “Too many of us live in intellectual silos, where we seek out people and information that simply reinforces our existing opinions. Venture out of those silos. Be the generation that embodies real tolerance, genuine inquiry and authentic open mindedness.”

At Notre Dame last weekend, University President Father John I. Jenkins told the graduating class that “We must speak the truth we know and challenge the injustice we see. But we also must listen to those who disagree, care for the bonds that join us together and find ways to build a society where all can flourish…” He then introduced the commencement speaker, Vice President Mike Pence, and approximately 100 people in the stadium, both students and some parents according to press reports, proceeded to walk out.

Some people berated the students for their actions and called them out for being uncivil. The students, to their credit, did not shout or hold up signs, they simply exited the stadium. They had expressed their concerns about the former Indiana Governor, now VP, being asked to speak at their graduation, and had informed the school of their decision to depart from the ceremony ahead of time.

The Vice President also spoke about the importance of civility in our public and political discourse. The students who opposed him as their commencement speaker demonstrated that it is possible to disagree and do so in a civil and respectful manner by departing quietly allowing the Vice President to deliver his speech to the remaining crowd. Hats off to everyone for handling the situation so well.

Here’s hoping that all of our 2017 college graduates will be exemplars of the importance of treating people, with whom they disagree, with civility and respect.