May 12, 2010

The Closing of the American Convocation

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Howdy.

Haven’t heard that one in a while, eh?

Come to think of it, there are probably more than a few of y’all who haven’t heard that one, well, ever, at least on these pages. The debonair denizen of Dixie discoursing with you presently has, after all, docked himself south of Mr. Mason and Co.’s distinguished demarcation since bidding adieu to our fair Cornell — and her ever-salient Sun, always available in print if not in the Ithaca sky — this time two years ago.

But.

Since we’re on the topic — and, indeed, speaking the right language — let me get right to the discussion that I’ve retreated from retirement to have with you.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Yes, mes amis, it’s true: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It was roughly 700 days ago that, after much deliberation, the Convocation Committee for the Class of 2008 was preparing to welcome Maya Angelou to campus to deliver our send-off speech. Just as she had done at President Clinton’s inauguration, Dr. Angelou would go on to inspire many of us in attendance — including yours truly — with the same knack for words that won her the Pulitzer Prize.

“You can be kind and true and fair and generous and just, and even merciful, occasionally,” the celebrated author and poet told us. “But to be that thing time after time, you have to really have courage.”

I was listening. What, however, of Cornell writ large?

It is no secret that the politics of the Big Red tend to run anything but. Democrats at Cornell, that is to say, never have to worry about being a minority on campus — unless the Tompkins County Green Party has a particularly good year.

In a few weeks’ time, our university will afford to Nancy Pelosi — Speaker of the House and Democratic partisan nonpareil — the same position of honor that it did to Maya Angelou two years ago, capping a decade of convocation speakers that have included James Carville, Wesley Clark, David Plouffe and the President from Hope himself.

The question is, was the decision to invite Nancy Pelosi a courageous one? The decision to invite Bill Clinton? General Clark? Any of the speakers these past 10 years?

“Courage,” Churchill said, “is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Does it take any amount of courage — Churchillian or otherwise — for the average Cornellian to listen to Barack Obama’s campaign manager deliver the verbal equivalent of a thank-you note for the youth vote?

In January, fellow conservative and Sun columnist Mike Wacker ’10 advised by way of this newspaper that, in future, Cornell should seek convocation speakers that allow “seniors to put aside their differences, come together as one, and jointly celebrate an important milestone of their lives.”

I appreciate the sentiment — but have a different suggestion.

Amazing people — and amazing speakers — can be, and usually are, amazingly controversial. This is as it should be.

The concept of higher education is controversial by its very nature. Properly run, a university should challenge us in ways that we have never before been challenged. What we read, what we write, what we hear and what we discuss during our college years should both inspire and — indeed — offend us.

Yet this is where our own university so often misses the mark.

Far above the busy humming of our conservative country looks our Cornell proudly down, intent on challenging all save herself.

She trumpets the virtues of free speech with her words and works — but fails to prepare her students for the full force of the First Amendment through her endorsement of on-campus censorship and enforcement of do-good, feel-good speech codes. She holds community-wide forums to chastise conservative journalists for protesting her policies via print — but punishes nary a progressive who crosses even legal lines in pushing the campus further left. She readily doles out the wisdom of a James Carville or a Nancy Pelosi — but rarely, if ever, requests that of a Mary Matalin or a Newt Gingrich.

She is always ready to teach — but, it seems, never willing to learn.

Cornell must begin to look within if we want to continue to be admired without. Even if it is unlikely that much of the Cornell community will heed conservative ideas, the university must nonetheless provide the opportunity for its students to hear them. By insulating the campus in a liberal bubble, Cornell is ensuring only that the students it seeks to shield leave intellectually lazy and wholly unprepared for life in the reality beyond Ithaca’s ten square miles.

Changing up convocation — arguably the University’s most public and emblematic event each year — would be more than a good start. Inviting, say, a Mark Kirk ’81 or an Alan Gura ’92 from time to time would strongly signal to both the community inside Cornell and the community outside Cornell that ours is an Ivy League university every bit as revolutionary as it was when Messrs. Cornell and White founded it, an institution both welcoming yet challenging to any person of — you guessed it — any study.

“The most successful tyranny,” one-time Cornell Professor Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, “is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.”

It’s time to open convocation — and, with it, our own shining city upon the Hill.

For now: best of luck, Madam Speaker. And the rest of you — drop me a howdy of your own sometime.

Mark Coombs ’08 is a former Sun columnist. He may be contacted at mcoombs@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this summer.

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Original Author: Mark Coombs