September 5, 2006
"Political democracy, as it exists and practically works in America, with all its threatening evils, supplies a training school for making first-class men [and women]." Walt Whitman, "Democratic Vistas" (1871)
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Welcome to you, the class of 2010. On behalf of the faculty and staff of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, I extend the warmest welcome to you and your families. You are a very accomplished group of young people, and we are proud to have you join us on the campus. You have excelled in your academic work, and many of you have shown great potential as leaders. I know that you will develop your talents enormously in the coming years at UM-Dearborn, and I know as well that our region and our country needs your best efforts. You are lucky to be here, and we are lucky to have you!
I’d like to share a few thoughts with you about the university and the experience we hope you will have here. The university is a place of engagement. We expect you to develop your own intellectual passions and to share these exciting ideas with others. We expect you to dive into the classroom, into the ideas to which you will be exposed, into animated discussions with your peers about these ideas, and into discussion and debate with your teachers. It is highly meaningful that such a large number of the faculty have come together today to celebrate this beginning. We want your engagement; we welcome your challenge and your debate; and we will ask much of you.
Because the university is also a place of challenge, it is important to know from the start that your experience in the classrooms and laboratories that make up UM-Dearborn will not be easy. You will be expected to study hard, to reflect and consider, to master new modes of analysis and deliberation, and to draw out the connections that you find between the various disciplines that you will study. We have high expectations of you, because you have high expectations of yourselves.
A university is a place for learning and individual development. But it is more than that. It is a community of learners, teachers, and scholars. It is a place for intense intellectual relationships; for friendships with people whose initial assumptions and frameworks are very different from your own; and a place for gaining commitment to and confidence in the many ways in which we can live together in the most progressive and supportive ways possible within our communities, present and future.
The university is a place where the values of integrity and honesty are particularly central. It is all too easy to cut corners in life, and this is true in the university no less than in business or government. So it is possible to find term papers on the Internet; to cheat on an examination; or to turn in someone else’s problem set in place of your own work. But I pose this question to you: is this the moral example you wish to set to yourself? Now is the right time to make the personal decision to live by principles you can respect throughout your life.
As you make your beginnings in the university, you will notice an important fact immediately: that there are many, many issues about which people feel strongly and disagree vehemently: the causes of racism, the importance of income inequalities, the causes of violence in the Middle East, the morality of stem cell research, or the issue of gay marriage. And when people feel strongly about an issue, it is common enough that their passions influence their speech. And yet a democratic society depends upon some background assumptions about debate and decision-making. And a university is a particularly important place for the values and practices that underlie civil dialogue should be evident. Today I would like to take a few minutes to think out loud with you about how and why we should engage in “difficult dialogues” on the campus and in the broader society.
The “why” of this question is perhaps the easiest to address. By engaging in discussion and dialogue about important issues, we can each make progress in the cogency of our views and our ability to understand the other person’s perspective. Debate leads us to gather new information; to reconsider some assumptions we may have made; to consider the historical and factual matters that are relevant to the debate; and, ideally, to come to opinions and beliefs that are more consistent with the facts and more fully expressive of values we hold strongly. Another important “why” answer has to do with the ways in which a democratic society reaches decisions. An influential current theory of democracy emphasizes the role of “deliberation” in democratic decision-making: a process in which citizens broaden their shared consensus through probing discussion and debate about the facts and values that surround an issue. And, the theory holds, the society will be more harmonious when citizens have enhanced the degree of commonality that they recognize among themselves: common understandings of history, of social processes, and of moral and religious values. Finally, we might say that debate and discussion are vastly preferable to violence and hateful rejection, as a recourse when citizens disagree. So debate about difficult issues is an important ingredient of a peaceful society of citizens with very different views of the world and goals for the future.
The question of “how” to engage in difficult dialogues is more complicated. This afternoon you were given a bookmark bearing a quotation from Walt Whitman. These are Whitman’s words: “Political democracy, as it exists and practically works in America, with all its threatening evils, supplies a training school for making first-class men [and women].” The words are taken from an essay Whitman wrote in 1868, only a few years following the assassination of Lincoln and the end of the American Civil War. (If you remember any of Whitman’s poetry, it is likely enough that you remember his powerful elegy to President Lincoln in the poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”) One might say that this is a time in American history where democracy most visibly failed: where the processes of debate and electoral competition failed to create a workable consensus about the most important issues of the day (slavery and secession), and where contending parties took up violence and war against each other. So we may indeed wonder, what does Whitman mean by saying that “democracy … supplies a training school for citizens”? I read the passage through the lens of political theorizing, as a statement about the effects that vigorous democratic debate has on the individuals who live in such a society. On this interpretation, Whitman is saying that the arts of citizenship allow us to cultivate our own intelligent understanding of the issues around us; to better understand the perspectives from which others arrive at their own convictions; and to deepen our ability to craft compromises that can serve as a basis for proceeding as a collectivity.
So I choose to interpret Whitman’s meaning here as pertaining to the question of how a group of equal men and women can bring their conflicting points of view, moral commitments, political goals, and historical and factual beliefs, into some sort of effective political environment for decision-making. And I find here a glimpse of an optimistic idea of the transforming power of this sort of civil debate for each of us. And yet my interpretation is arguable; for it is also true that the essay is deeply pessimistic in its assessment of the current state of democracy: “Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States.”
So how might the process of civil debate and discussion proceed at UM-Dearborn? It is worth reflecting for a moment on what it means to be engaged in “respectful disagreement” and debate within a democratic society. A commitment to democratic deliberation does not involve the idea that we must ultimately agree about every issue or historical interpretation. Instead, it expresses a commitment to the terms of dialogue, and to a common respect for the idea of a non-coercive environment of reasoned persuasion and discussion. We need to have confidence that each of us is using reasons, investigation, and logic to articulate and defend opinions, and each is making a sincere effort to understand the other person’s point of reference.
These points about civility and democratic debate are particularly important within the university. The university is founded on a commitment to the crucial importance of academic freedom, freedom of association, and freedom of thought. Professors have often in our history advocated for positions that were deeply unpopular to the powerful or to the majority—pacifism in World War I, the rights of homosexuals, the scientific validity of Darwinian theory, or the injustice of the Vietnam War. And we have witnessed efforts to silence unpopular voices— Senator McCarthy’s voice in Good Night and Good Luck, for example. Why is it so important for universities to defend the principles of academic freedom? For two central reasons among many: first, because of the social value that results from the articulation of better theories and policies through unconstrained inquiry and debate; and second, because of the formative value for each of us that results from our own freedom to engage in debate about difficult issues. Here again, we find the Whitman lines to be apt.
There is another reason why it is worthwhile for you to reflect on these several lines from Walt Whitman: because they illustrate one of the most intriguing possibilities posed for you by the study of literature and history. The essay “Democratic Vistas” is not part of the “canon” of intellectual signposts that are part of every educated person’s repertoire, and its meaning is not cut and dried. Rather, the essay represents a fascinating challenge of interpretation—for the literary scholar, the historian, and the student. Whitman was a great poet; he was an observer of ordinary life in extraordinary times; he was an intelligent man. But what did he make of these events and circumstances? What does this essay mean? Is it favorable to democracy or critical of it? How does Whitman interpret the facts of the Civil War, the corruption of politics following the Civil War, and the many other events that he describes? In order to make sense of the essay, it is necessary to think hard about its context—historical, intellectual, moral, poetic. And the more you learn about the contexts of this work, or any other dense piece of writing and culture, the more connections you will be able to make among the thoughts and ideas that are expressed; the more sense you will be able to make of the document in its context. So my reference to this quotation of Whitman is intended to pose a challenge to you: to dig into the writings and interpretations that constitute the messy, complex, and obscure tapestry of American culture. There is not a single, unified interpretation that will suffice; rather, we can discover new insights and raise new puzzles through careful reading of the writings of these talented observers of humanity. In other words, there is an exciting world of discovery available at your fingertips: through careful reading and testing of the writings of thinkers who fascinate you, it will be possible for you to make new discoveries about the meaning of their thoughts. The study of history and literature is as novel and path breaking as the study of string theory or evolution.
These observations are relevant to some important opportunities that you will discover on the campus during your years here. This fall the campus will be bringing forward the first of several semesters of a program called “Difficult Dialogues.” This is a program that a group of talented UM-Dearborn faculty proposed successfully to the Ford Foundation. The goal is to create effective environments on college campuses where students, faculty, and others can come together to debate, discuss and inquire about some of the most challenging and potentially divisive issues that confront us as a society. This fall the focus will be on the subject of race in America; later semesters will deal with religious pluralism and conflict in the Middle East. The goal is not to arrive at a consensus about any of these issues, but rather to experiment with different forums through which constructive and civil debate can occur. We also have a dynamic ongoing program called the “Conversation on Race” that is aimed at bringing our students and others into a better understanding of assumptions about race and ethnicity. These conversations have been very valuable in the past, and we look forward to building on their success into the coming academic year. I encourage you to participate in the forums and discussions that will take place. I know that you will find them valuable.
Finally, I would like to draw your attention to an important effort the University of Michigan is making on all three campuses. This is an effort called “Expect Respect”, and it involves programming and communications focused on the importance of establishing a truly democratic and civil environment for all of us, no matter the ways in which we differ culturally or socially. Democracy is a work in progress, and universities are among the best places to learn to create the forms of civic participation that make it work best. You can have a big impact at UM-Dearborn, and you will have many opportunities for engagement in the months and years to come.
Congratulations to you and your families on this beginning. You have accomplished much, and we are proud to have you join the university community. Please join me and the faculty at the ice cream social that will be hosted in the University Center courtyard immediately following this ceremony.