Freakout at Howard University

Howard University, the “historically black” college in Washington, D.C., held its commencement this weekend. California Senator Kamala Harris, a Howard grad, delivered the address.

Sen. Harris told the graduates:

You are graduating into a very different time than it was when you arrived a few short years ago. We have a fight ahead. It’s a fight to determine what kind of country we will be. And it’s a fight to determine whether we are willing to stand up for our deepest values.

It’s obviously improper, though no longer unusual, for commencement speakers to use their address to rally graduates to a political cause. It’s even worse when a politician does this because then the speaker has a professional interest in rallying potential supporters.

Using commencement speeches this way is also demeaning to the graduates. It implies that they need to be told what to think and how to behave politically. Shouldn’t, say, a 22 year-old Howard grad be able to form his or her own view as to whether “our deepest values” are in danger, thus requiring a political “fight” to preserve them?

(These problems with political graduation speeches apply whether the speaker is liberal/Democratic or conservative/Republican. They apply to President Trump’s commencement speech at Liberty University in which he declared “the system is broken” and urged graduates to relish the opportunity to be an outsider. College grads shouldn’t need to be told whether to be an “outsider” or an “insider.” Many go to college hoping to become an insider, a reasonable aspiration.)

Yet, some Howard students do seem quite confused. When Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited the college, some urged the college to reject federal funding because President Trump heads the government.

Howard’s president, Wayne A.I. Frederick pointed out that the college needs federal money due to millions of dollars in unpaid tuition and a backlog of deferred maintenance costs. He also had the audacity to say, in response to protests against DeVos’ visit, that it was important to interact with people one disagrees with.

This led protests against Frederick, plus a faculty vote of no confidence. It also produced this message on a campus sidewalk:

Welcome to Trump plantation. Overseer: Wayne A.I. Frederick.

Given this level of nauseating ignorance, maybe Howard grads do need to be told how to think about politics, and about history. But not by Sen. Kamala Harris. Thinking her way will only encourage them to view themselves as victims.

Few messages could be more insidious for graduates setting out to make their way in the world.

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