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William Graham Delivers Morning Prayers in Appleton Chapel
We are living in times of stridency. Those most vehement and fixed in their passions and opinions seem to be able to use our manifold media outlets to their own advantage, against whomever they disagree with. One is reminded of Yeats's lament:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The American political scene, like that of the wider world, seems bereft of statesmanship and leadership, given over to mediocrity or demagoguery. The hijacking of religious ideals by extremists seems all too frequent, not least in the Muslim world, but also in the Christian, Jewish, and Hindu, to name only the most obvious. Nor do many mainstream religious institutions or leaders seem capable of positive leadership.
In such harsh times, I want to plead for recognition of the university as precisely an institution worthy of our commitment and, in our own case in this particular university, worthy of its liberal Christian roots that this daily chapel service embodies. We need to pledge ourselves to preserve the university's special place, in this society and around the globe, as a haven for reasoned discourse, simple civility, and willingness to confront our human differences—political, religious, intellectual, or otherwise. It must be preserved as that special sanctuary where ideally there is no place for the "-isms" of the political and religious arenas, the common disregard for the dignity of persons of all stripes, the instinctive quickness to label reductively and to dismiss those who disagree with us, and the general lack of humane respect for our fellows that fills our airwaves and print.
There is a real sense in which we are privileged beyond measure simply to be part of a community of the mind and spirit that few religious or civic, let alone political, institutions in our society—or any society—aspire to, much less achieve. There is a reason for the symbolic walls around the traditional college: namely that here we are consciously and intentionally what my son's secondary school prides itself on being—a diverse but "gathered" community wherein we leave not our identities, but as much of our divisive cultural baggage as we can behind us at the gate. Here neither one's economic or social status nor one's racial, ethnic, sexual, or religious identity should matter except for the unique experience and viewpoint one brings to the table because of it. We have accepted the rules of the academy in entering the walls of a university, and that should make all the difference. Here we join in the passion for ideas, ideals, and knowledge of the facts, rather than their distortions. Here we bring any viewpoint to the table so long as we are prepared to argue for it reasonably and allow it to be subjected to the interrogation and rational objections of our interlocutors. Here we work in a free-trade zone of ideas so long as we accept its rules of rationality and mutual respect.
What does this mean? Only this: If we lash out ad hominem at those who disagree with us; if we disparage those who use their freedom here to speak out on issues of the day and impugn their motives; if we refuse particular viewpoints a hearing in our "marketplace of ideas"; then we surrender our protected status and join the much rougher marketplace of passions and power. We also lose the immense capacity of free intellectual interchange to serve our common interest in a better future for everyone. As was the case long ago with Socrates, those who follow reason and the hard discipline of principle may always be perceived as misfits; but without them we, especially as a democratic nation, but also as a global community in which we can even marginally dream of peace and progress, are lost. In a time when religious sanctuaries are regularly ignored or despoiled, let us try at least to keep the intellectual sanctuary of the university inviolate, open also to "misfits," able to serve our highest aspirations for a better future for the so-called "real world" and impenetrable to the latter's strident extremisms and their disregard for divergent thinking.