Disruption

at 12:35 AM

Commencement season is here, and with it, the inevitable commencement speech controversies. But this year, things seem particularly aggrieved. College students are protesting speakers such as Condoleeza Rice, Christine Lagard and former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.

In return, the students are being called "arrogant" and "immature" in the Los Angeles Times. They're even being told, by a "fellow Millennial" on The Daily Beast, to "shut the hell up."

Popular sentiment has turned solidly against college students. But I just read David Foster Wallace's legendary Kenyon College commencement speech, and while college students can be arrogant and, yes, immature, protesting is part of their job. Wallace, even as he warns against arrogance, said choosing what to think about and how to think -- these are the goals of a college education. Critical thinking means you're free to make up your own mind, to make impassioned arguments, even if they may be wrong.

And they're not always wrong. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the seminal moment for collegiate intellectual passion. It was then and it was here, in the Bay Area, where the Free Speech Movement was born.

In December of 1964, frustrated by the intransigence of the University of California, Mario Savio stood on the stairs of Sproul Hall and said:

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"There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."

Universities have the right to tell their students to "shut the hell up," but it is also the hard-fought right of university students to fight that muzzle. To throw their bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels. Upon the levers. Because unless you're free, the machine wins.  

With a Perspective, I'm Gordon Wright.

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Gordon Wright is a publicist and freelance writer. He lives in Marin.

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