Reading how people are reacting in regards to the Notre Dame graduation is humorous and a little disheartening. It shows such a misunderstanding from so many people about what a protest even is and the motivating factors that will result in someone taking a risk to take a stand.
I can’t help but reflect to a specific day at Drury University where the people in my living learning community thought the way things were being run was a little silly. We asked why it was the way it was and didn’t get any reasonable explanation. So we got together, formed a plan, and when the time came, we all went into a classroom and took over the seats. We then waited, some of us with excitement beaming from our faces and others with nervousness that wasn’t well hidden. Our demonstration of sitting in a classroom was a relatively harmless “demonstration” of our questioning why things were done the way that they were currently being done, but we were taking a bit of a risk and questioning the status quo.
Dr. Mark Wood, our professor, was exhilarated by our plan when he was informed that we wouldn’t be in our regularly scheduled class. In this case, we had very little to lose. We were risking potential consequences of angering a different professor and his students, and we were risking consequences that could result from breaking a few rules. Those consequences were relatively insignificant in comparison to our desire to take a stand for something that we saw as counter productive.
As the protest happened, we were first met with a lot of confusion, and then as we explained why we were refusing to move, the confusion turned into minor annoyance in some and anger in others. Eventually, after our point was made and we had disrupted what I remember as ~15 minutes of class, we gave in and left the area. We had made our point, and while we didn’t even get our way in the end, we all felt better at having taken an action that demonstrated that we thought there was value in bringing this change.
Dr. Wood wasn’t even excited about the reason we were doing a silly little protest; he was excited that while we were studying about how our nation started, we took the lessons and examples of our founding fathers that he had been teaching us and put them into use in our lives. We learned from history and we had taken the initiative upon ourselves to work towards improvement.
I remember Dr. Wood got into a bit of an argument with the other professor because he had allowed us to do this and supported our endeavors. While I reflect back to that day more than a decade later, I know his excitement had nothing to do with the protest itself. We had demonstrated that the lessons he was trying to instill into us were actually being learned. It wasn’t about getting the right answer on an exam or making a compelling argument in an essay. Those things have value as well, but the efforts of a good teacher are about so much more, and he had the opportunity to witness that his efforts were being rewarded. Our education was about taking the lessons we were learning and actually using them in life. A few of us had questioned the status quo, we had come together as a group, and we had tried casual negotiation with the students in the other class. When they told us they didn’t know why it was the way it was, but they were still going to keep doing it because that’s the way their professor wanted it, we organized a peaceful protest to bring attention to the problem we saw. We had taken the knowledge from our lessons with Dr. Wood and applied them in an attempt to initiate change.
Our protest over the classroom choice never brought that change for us. On the outside, it may appear so though we failed. But I think the opposite is true. The group of us who identified the problem, questioned authority, organized the group, and developed a plan for change had won in regards to the life lesson. To this day, I wonder if the other professor ever really got it and I’m thankful that Dr. Wood saw the bigger picture. I know it created Dr. Wood some extra work as he had to explain to other faculty what had happened, and then he followed up by defending our actions. But I know he wasn’t defending our actions because he cared about the classroom at all. He was defending our very education, and I know that day, he was proud of our class as we had stood up and declared, “we hear your lessons Dr. Wood, now it’s time for us to show you that we understand them and are willing to use them.”
These graduates from Notre Dame spent several years working toward a degree. Then they have the second highest ranking political figure in our Executive Branch come to speak. Instead of sitting there in complacent silence, a select few decided to tell their professors “we heard your lessons, we passed the tests, now we’ll take what we learned and show you that we can put those lessons into action.” They said, “we see injustice, and we are willing to take the risk to break the silence, even if we have to give up something we’ve earned.”
I honestly can’t think of much more of an American thing to do. This nation exists solely because a select few people decided to tell the highest authority figure that they would no longer tolerate injustices they were subjected to even if it meant they risked their livelihood to do so. For them, a life being ruled on values and principles they did not agree with was not a life worth living. For these graduates, having a graduation ceremony that required their complacency wasn’t a graduation ceremony worth having. They took that moment to stand up in a room full of many people and peacefully say “we don’t care who you are, we won’t be complacent with our values”.
The comments over at Fox News are filled with people saying they are being disrespectful, spoiled, and naive. They say they aren’t prepared for the real world. They say that these are future people not worthy of being employed.
But this is what college is about. Learning to think for yourself and learning that authority isn’t always right. It’s about learning that you alone are in control of the choices you make in life, and even when life puts you in a situation that you don’t want to be in, you have to make the choice about how to best handle the situation. It’s about learning that we are all in this together, and even if you have to be the first one to stand up for something of value, others will likely follow.
So to the commenters saying things along the lines of “employers should take note so you don’t hire these graduates” and “these graduates are being disrespectful towards their school and their professors,” I say the opposite is true. These graduates are the ones who are willing to take the risks to do what they see as right. They showed us that day that their degrees were earned, not bought. They put what they learned into action, even if they had to take a risk. The demonstrated initiative. They are our future leaders.