Sturm: Universities and bureaucracies: close-minded havens
“I’m not young enough to know everything,” Oscar Wilde observed, as if reflecting on the Great Commencement Speaker Flap of 2014. However, Jimi Hendrix was young when he offered advice that today’s college students should heed — “knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”
Unmindful that earned wisdom is derived from asking the right questions — not identifying the wrong answers — too many students graduate into a complex and conflict-riddled world without the insights that come from the clash of opposing viewpoints.
Is it surprising then, that so many intractable problems plague our society, like military veterans dying from government-provided health care?
Real advance, Albert Einstein revealed, requires the creative imagination to Think Again, “to raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle.” We can’t solve problems, Einstein believed, by applying the same “thinking we used when we created them.”
Nevertheless, “tolerance enforcers” wielding moral superiority and a heckler’s veto have transformed campuses into sanctuaries for the close-minded. Cocooned away, students are safe from potential insult, reflective thought, disagreement — and real life.
This year’s commencement castoffs — victims of a war on accomplished and courageous women — include: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, human rights activist; Condoleeza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state; and Christian Lagarde, International Monetary Fund chief.
Couldn’t Brandeis’ class of 2014 have learned something from Ali, a Somali feminist who overcame subjugation, genital circumcision and forced marriage to become a Dutch parliamentarian, Harvard professor, and internationally acclaimed author, while living under death threats?
Wasn’t it worth Rutgers graduates’ time to listen to Rice, an African-American who emerged out of the segregated south to become the most accomplished black woman in American history, whose foreign policy judgments were shared by Senators Clinton, Biden, Kerry and Reid?
Wouldn’t Smith women have derived inspiration from Lagarde, the first woman to become finance minister of a G8 economy (France) and head of the IMF?
At last week’s Harvard commencement, Michael Bloomberg won applause denouncing the left-wing bias that censors unfashionable voices on campus asking, “Isn’t the purpose of a university to stir discussion, not silence it” in order “to teach students how (not what) to think?”
That’s what I assumed while attending Tufts University where I co-founded a student newspaper deemed offensive by the thought police. They branded me — and my vandalized car — “fascist” for writing dissenting opinions about the nuclear freeze, Reagan’s social security reform, and Jessie Jackson’s “hymie-town” slur.
The problem is not just that “censorship and conformity (are) the mortal enemies of freedom,” as Bloomberg declared. It’s that when “everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking,” as Benjamin Franklin taught, creating a culture that breeds incompetence, indifference, greed, lack of accountability, and corruption — in essence, scandalous behavior.
Consider the latest scandal rocking Washington at the Veterans Administration, the federal government’s largest employer. To meet a patient caseload that’s grown 30 percent since 2003 and address persistent quality-of-care problems, the VA’s budget more than doubled over the period while full-time employees jumped 63 percent to 314,000.
Yet the VA still can’t match the private sector’s standard of care, which is why only 40 percent of veterans are enrolled in the government-run health care system. The just-released VA audit confirms a widespread and “systematic lack of integrity,” as employees prioritized their bonuses over sick and dying veterans.
It’s a story of bureaucratic ineptitude, fraud and potentially criminal conduct that even shocked the now-former head of the VA, Eric Shinseki. Unfortunately, unlike the private sector, the Washington Way is: if you like your government job, you can keep it — except for scapegoats like Shinseki.
The truth is, without the disciplining and invigorating influence of an open and competitive environment, and the innovation and accountability it fosters, otherwise honorable and capable people can be rendered indecent and incompetent. It’s the eco-system — not the people in it — that mostly determines human behavior.
In the frantic circumstances of 9/11, people behaved magnificently, as I learned at the new Memorial Museum. Most moving were stories of the rescued — civilians and emergency responders — who returned to the devastation “to do for others what had been done for us,” explained retired fireman Mickey Cross.
Even amid the confusion and devastation, Cross noted “a real sense of caring for one another …” which “is something we should never forget and never stop doing.”
For those caught in the tragedy, there was no script or easy answers, only difficult questions. Yet the improbably heroic did the right thing, even under duress, which is the definition of initiative. In a more open system, VA employees would likely do the same.
Think Again — We don’t need crises to bring out the best of humanity, just a better environment to produce decent, motivated and wise people.
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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