According to US Federal Election Commission data, 96 percent of Ivy League faculty and administrators that gave money to a presidential candidate in 2012 donated to President Obama. The left-leaning nature of American academia is well-known, but rarely raised in polite company. Speaking at Harvard’s 363rd commencement last year, however, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did just that. Citing the Election Commission’s figure, he uncomfortably tempered Harvard’s next generation of leaders with a message of tolerance over uniformity. “There was more disagreement than that among the members of the old Soviet Politburo,” he said, adding the obvious sleight that “a university cannot be great if its faculty is politically homogenous.”
In order to weather its current economic and political challenges, America needs not only a more balanced exchange of ideas, but to reconnect with tried and tested principles. Thus, the purpose of Zev Chafet’s Remembering Who We Are, a diverse collection of college commencement addresses, “is not to develop a right-wing orthodoxy, but precisely to show the intellectual and cultural nuance on that side of the spectrum.”
From neurosurgeon Ben Carson, to playwright David Mamet and others, the speeches thread messages of individual liberty, responsibility, free enterprise, and the rule of law with personal experience and advice to the next generation.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali – famously barred from delivering her commencement address to Brandeis University – offers “unsparing truth” to combat excusing the link between Islam and violence against women. In her speech Here’s What I Would Have Said at Brandeis, Ali writes:
We do no favors to students, faculty, nonbelievers, and people of faith when we shut our eyes to this link, when we excuse rather than reflect.
Indeed, frank and open discussion is a good place to start in offering a balance of views. As Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal paraphrased William F. Buckley in his speech to Liberty University’s class of 2014, “a liberal is someone who welcomes dissent, and then is astonished to find that there is any.”
Reading the speeches collected together, one notices — perhaps unsurprisingly — the absence of leading Republicans speaking at leading educational institutions. Carly Fiorina, for example, is found delivering her commencement address to the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Paul Ryan – no less the 2012 Vice Presidential candidate – to Benedictine College, and Rand Paul at the University of Pikeville.
Their words are hardly partisan or provocative. The titles of their relative speeches are, for example, “What You Make of Yourself is Your Gift to God,” “Free Enterprise, Faith, and the Common Good” and “Love the People Who Are Closest To You.” America’s current circumstances – an $18 trillion debt, logjam politics, entrenched lobby groups, ageing infrastructure, and an unimpressive economic recovery – clearly signal that it’s time to explore topics with such depth.
Speaking to Pepperdine University’s class of 2014, Ricochet’s own Victor Davis Hanson, argued that “the causes of hope are everywhere.” Hanson — who is usually gloomy about American resilience — finds optimism in the unique bravery shown by America’s next generation of armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, the opportunities from the looming energy revolution, and the insistence among young Americans to “pay off the debts of my generation so that you do not leave liabilities for your children the way we tragically left them for you.”
Carson, meanwhile, urged reconnecting to good old-fashioned common sense. As a high watermark of it, he cites Alexis de Tocqueville’s surprise at the wide level of literacy possessed by the average American in the early 1800s. “He could find a beaver trapper,” says Carson, “and the guy could read the newspaper, could tell him how the government worked, could have a sophisticated conversation. Only the aristocracy in Europe were able to do that.”
Indeed, Carson’s point brings home a central theme to the book: A formal education isn’t always the route to a good education. Discovering individual talent and potential doesn’t emerge in lecture halls or libraries, but is found by walking the avenues of solitude and self-reflection. This, after all, is what no amount of delicate advice can deliver but is something young people must work out for themselves.
Non-American readers, too, can relate strongly to the wisdom within these pages. I write from Australia, for example, where center-right leaders talk with equal appreciation for the same ideals – free enterprise, responsibility, creativity, innovation, and hard work – that contributed to success and prosperity. With similar questions around the value of formal education and subjecting our youth to unbending lessons from left-leaning academia, it’s hard to see formal education being taken seriously in places like the U.S. and Australia. “The real pioneering will be in online education,” predicts author of The Higher Education Bubble Glenn Reynolds, “and the work of “edupunks” who are more interested in finding new ways of teaching and learning than in protecting existing interests.”
Politically homogenous faculties are not likely to change. But one hopes that efforts like Remembering Who We Are will mitigate the left’s monopoly on campus views by lighting a much-needed fuse for a genuine exchange of ideas. It is, after all, not just campus success but national success that relies upon such things.