For those of us here in Rockford, Illinois, 200 miles (give or take) northwest of South Bend, Indiana, President Barack Obama’s commencement address at the University of Notre Dame on May 17 provoked a sense of déjà vu. For it was on that same date six years ago that another commencement address on a controversial topic became national news and inspired a heated debate that dragged on for weeks on talk radio and the talking-head wrestling matches on FOX News and MSNBC.
There were some differences, of course. The 2003 commencement address at Rockford College was not delivered by the President of the United States but by Chris Hedges, a correspondent for the New York Times, former divinity student and son of an ordained minister, and author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. And with the likely exception of Rockford College President Paul Pribbenow, who invited Hedges and asked him to speak about war, no one expected Hedges’ talk to be controversial.
In contrast, no one knew for certain until the text of the Notre Dame address was made public an hour before he took the stage that President Obama would discuss abortion. It was a reasonable assumption, of course, but largely because of the protests that had been launched back in January, when Notre Dame President John Jenkins first issued the invitation to the President. Barack Obama is not the kind of man to pass up the opportunity to try to show his accusers that they are wrong—or that he can outmaneuver them.
And unless the President had used his speech to announce that he personally had pioneered a new technique that allowed abortions to be performed up until the second year postpartum, it is hard to see how his appearance as an honored guest on an official stage at the most prestigious Catholic university in America could not have been a p.r. victory for the most pro-abortion president the United States has ever known. Indeed, even if he had announced his new technique, some present would undoubtedly have praised it as “safe” and “humane,” while others would have pointed to the President’s medical knowledge as yet another reason why we should be grateful that, in the words of Father Jenkins, “President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him.”
After all, isn’t “dialogue” what education is all about? Even many of those who do not regard truth as passé, just another “ideological construct” designed to “privilege” the “patriarchal structures” established by Dead White European Males, still seem to think that the best—nay, the only—way to discover the truth is for the teacher to learn from the student while the student learns from the teacher.
The Great Books programs that so many conservatives regard as “traditional” education are built on that very principle. Discovering the meaning of the text—not the obvious meaning of the words, made clear by the circumstances that prompted the author to write the text and the historical context in which the text was written, but the “true meaning,” embedded in the text by the author, who was writing “for all ages”—is a process of dialogue, discussion, give and take. It doesn’t matter if the 17-year-old freshman has no knowledge of 16th-century Florence; his professor doesn’t, either. Coming together in ignorance, reading a stilted “literal” translation of The Prince, they can come to the correct understanding of Machiavelli’s little tract—which, mirabile dictu, turns out to be exactly what Leo Strauss said it was in his Thoughts on Machiavelli.
That such “dialogue” seems always to arrive at the same conclusion should be enough to give us pause. How is it that successive generations of students and teachers, approaching a text with widely varying knowledge and experience, invariably settle on an accepted interpretation? Perhaps there is something magical about the text after all.
Or perhaps the process of “dialogue,” as we know it today, is really about indoctrinating the naive without them realizing it. And such indoctrination is made all the easier because modern students have been taught to be sycophants. The “dialogue” in the classroom might as well be a soliloquy.
Where was the “dialogue” in President Obama’s speech? In a telling passage, he discussed an incident in which a pro-life doctor who had supported him in the Democratic primaries suggested that he might withhold his support in the general election because of the stridency of the pro-abortion rhetoric on the Obama campaign’s website. “After I read the doctor’s letter,” President Obama told the adoring crowd assembled in Notre Dame’s Joyce Center Arena, “I wrote back to him and thanked him. I didn’t change my position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website.”
Barack Obama did not come to Notre Dame hoping to have his mind changed, or even being open to the possibility. He came to convince others that he was right, and they were wrong, and to do it in such a way that those who changed their minds thought that they did so through their own intellectual efforts.
And by that measure, May 17, 2009, turned out to be Barack Obama’s most successful day in office so far.