How College Isn’t Much Different from High School

June 9, 2014

By George Boardman at The Union

Seniors graduating from Bear River and Nevada Union high schools may view the commencement addresses as harmless exercises that just delay the start of the graduation parties. Those who are going on to college are in for a big surprise.

Take, for example, the commencement address scheduled to be delivered Friday by actress Jane Fonda to graduates of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. You would think a two-time winner of the Oscar would have some useful advice for those who aspire to success in the creative arts.

But Fonda is remembered by some, mainly veterans of the Vietnam War, as “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, a young actress who traveled to North Vietnam in 1972 to meet with enemy soldiers and called U.S. troops “war criminals.” These memories don’t fade easily.

“She was young and stupid, but that’s no excuse,” said John Crooker of Vietnam Veterans of America, who isn’t happy about UCLA’s choice of speakers.

“I don’t know of any Vietnam veterans who have anything good to say about her.”

That’s not entirely true, but a lot of Americans who felt it was their patriotic duty to fight in the Vietnam War are still embittered by the hostile reception they got when they returned home. Some of that rage can be found on a Facebook page, “Vets Boycotting Hanoi Jane Fonda,” which has more than 37,000 fans and is urging a boycott of UCLA.

Liberals who are tempted to call this protest a suppression of free speech may want to hold their tongues. After all, it was just last month that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew as the commencement speaker at Rutgers University after protests over her involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Unfortunately, this is a trend. Over the last two years, more than two dozen graduation speakers have either withdrawn or been “disinvited” by universities because of their personal or professional views. So much for the university as a forum for the exchange of ideas.

“The danger here is that we send a message to students that they have a right to only hear from people they agree with,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“… when you actually start applying this kind of purity test, it becomes difficult to find anyone you can invite to speak who has done anything interesting with their lives.”

These dustups are one of the more visible manifestations of the pressure in our leading colleges and universities to conform socially and academically. High school graduates who are looking forward to the freedom that comes with going away to college will quickly learn otherwise.

A group of students caused an uproar at UC Davis last month when they promoted an off-campus party called “Cinco de Drinko.” Just to drive home the point, the Facebook page for the event featured a picture of four male students wearing sombreros trying to jump a chain-link fence while two female students in Border Patrol uniforms smiled.

This prompted a protest by about 100 students and an appearance by Chancellor Linda Katehi, who was told by protesters they felt unsafe on campus. Katehi, who almost lost her job when campus cops pepper-sprayed nonviolent protesters in 2011, suggested the university might mandate a diversity course to better sensitize students to the feelings of others.

Jonathan Beatty, one of the students wearing a sombrero, told the Sacramento Bee he didn’t think the party theme was racist, likening the event to St. Patrick’s Day activities.

“People are being overly sensitive,” he said.

(Many consider this boorish behavior, but it’s not yet illegal to do stupid things. Just don’t try it at a college or university.)

Then there’s the growing sensitivity to the shocking ideas students might encounter in their studies. Some universities are actually considering using “trigger warnings” about material that might be particularly reactive for victims of assaults and war veterans. (I’m not making this up.)

Student government leaders at UC Santa Barbara are pushing the administration to provide such alerts at the request of a student who was upset by a film shown in class that depicted a rape, according to the New York Times. One student suggested that the trigger warning for “The Great Gatsby” might be: (TW: “Suicide,” Domestic Abuse” and “Graphic Violence.”) He apparently was serious.

If I were giving a high school commencement address, I would advise the college-bound graduates to be highly skeptical of the group think and perceived norms at the college or university they attend.

Don’t be offended if people challenge your personal beliefs; if you can’t defend them, you should rethink them. But don’t be pressured into accepting the prevailing orthodoxy, either.

Think for yourself and find your own path. That’s one of the real values of a college education.