A student protest at the University of Denver during the 1970s

Advice in a Time of Protest

This week, we met with our Senior class to go over all the details related to CA end-of-year traditions and their upcoming Commencement. As a final piece of advice to the Class of 2024 prior to my graduation speech, I took the opportunity to share some thoughts regarding the protests that have overtaken many college campuses. I noted that this class is about to go to college in one of the most divisive moments in American history since 1968. The situation in Israel and Gaza has inflamed college campuses throughout the country, and we are seeing multiple college presidents no longer tolerate disruption. Students have faced disciplinary action and arrest, and others have been doxxed and have had job offers rescinded for their political action.

I was very clear with Colorado Academy’s Seniors in emphasizing that I am not telling them what to think or what to believe politically. Nor did I offer my personal thoughts on the current conflict in the Middle East or give an opinion on what is taking place in colleges. Each American citizen is entitled to form their own political opinion. 

I reminded the Seniors that the value of the university experience is to learn from others and to listen to diverse viewpoints. Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, recently wrote a thoughtful essay entitled “The Best College is One In Which You Don’t Fit In.” Roth writes: “The most rewarding forms of education make you feel very uncomfortable, not least because they force you to recognize your own ignorance. Students should hope to encounter ideas and experience cultural forms that push them beyond their current opinions and tastes. Sure, revulsion is possible (and one can learn from that), but so is the discovery that your filtered ways of taking in the world have blocked out things in which you now delight. One learns from that, too.”

In a typical year, students entering college are focused on what courses they want to take, what clubs they want to sign up for, and how they will get along with their roommates. However, these are not typical times. The political activism we are seeing is not likely to dissipate and may get more intense as we approach the election. It is important for our graduates to reflect on what they believe in and do some research on this issue (and many others) before they step foot on their college campus. 

We know that some college students have faced an incredible amount of peer pressure to take some kind of action related to this current Middle East crisis. They have faced judgment for social media posts—for either what they have posted or what they have not. They have been judged by who they choose to be friends with. 

I pointed out to the Class of 2024 that whether it was Vietnam in the 1960s or the current Middle East crisis, these conflicts are so complex and nuanced that they cannot be reduced to a motto or slogan; and, that if one chooses to get involved, that person really needs to understand their position and the consequences of their actions. On top of this, they should be mindful of this age of rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Any type of political action should be carefully considered and thought through. Is it action that is effective or merely performative? Does it involve violence or intimidating behavior? Who are the organizers and what are their political goals? Has one deeply researched the core issues? Is one ready to accept the short-term and long-term consequences for their actions and words?

There is a real opportunity for these students to spend the next few years of their lives expanding their worldviews. It is natural for young people to be affected emotionally by world events and be compelled to take action. Speaking with Seniors, I noted that being aware politically is an important part of being an American citizen. It is these people who shape the policies and direction of our nation. And this generation of students will be facing a multitude of complex problems as they replace the current generation in charge. I am hopeful, especially today, that wherever they may make their voices heard, our graduates will remain mindful of the value of the type of civil discourse and respectful conversation they learned to practice here at CA.