It was 1953 when a Fulbright scholarship took me from war-devastated Europe to Smith College. I had landed in Paradise. Until I graduated, my smile never vanished. The joy of learning, of open discussions, and of discovering a world poles apart from mine was truly exhilarating.
I had grown up under Hitler when asking questions was strictly forbidden. You said the compulsory “Heil Hitler” and kept silent, because informers were everywhere. A word that wasn’t the Party line or a joke could land you in jail if not worse. Conversation had died, for we all knew that the walls have ears. Even your best friend could be an informer. When people are starving, the promise of extra food stamps for denouncing others was a temptation that not everyone could resist.
How refreshing to come to Smith College. A student’s questions were encouraged. We invited members of the faculty to join us for dinner and had marvelously heated discussions with our French Professor while living in French House. He usually prevailed for his French was much better than ours!
With mounting curiosity I read the article in the Wall Street Journal that protesters at my beloved alma mater caused an accomplished woman luminary to withdraw her acceptance to give the commencement address.
Christine LaGarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, might have conveyed a wealth of knowledge to the students. Countries in dire need and on the verge of starvation come to the IMF for help, their last resort. In turn, the IMF imposes a stern program to cut back on spending, to tighten their belts and pay back their debts.
Apparently 477 students and some members of the faculty had signed the online objection because, according to the Wall Street Journal, listening to her would mean that we are supporting the IMF and thus going directly against Smith's values to stand in unity with equality for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class.
A curious thought. Why refuse to listen to an extraordinarily capable woman? Why deny her the courtesy to speak and other students the chance of hearing her? They might have learned about the hardships of less privileged countries and their struggles to cope and survive. I am sadly reminded of my early youth when only the viewpoint of the person in command was permitted.
After all, what is the purpose of education? Isn’t it to learn about the boundless diversity and variety that life has to offer? As Malcolm Forbes stated: The purpose of education is not to fill an empty mind with facts and figures, but to create an open mind receptive to new knowledge and ideas. The Old Bard puts it most elegantly: Man, proud man, dressed in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he is most assured.
The students’ protest at Smith College was obviously not directed at Ms. LaGarde, a highly accomplished woman with a long and successful track record whom Forbes considers the 7th most powerful woman in the world. Their objection was to the IMF, a powerful organization, but not perfect; few are. But then, why object to hearing Ms. LaGarde? It might have contributed to a better understanding of the problem and possibly encouraged rethinking the guidelines of the IMF.
It is a grand privilege to have the right to express our views, but we cannot deny this right to others. As I know from bitter experience, the path to tyranny is a slippery slope that begins with intolerance.
Until next time,