The Spring Of My Harding Lecture
Is it possible, at all remotely possible, that an Arkansas institution of higher learning would bring a Russian communist to their campus and then rescind a similar invitation to an award-winning novelist? An Arkansas born and bred novelist?
It is not only possible. It happened. Really! But back to the very beginning. I had been scheduled to speak at the Searcy campus of Harding University. Time, place, honorarium had all been set for weeks, but a funny thing happened to me on my way to the speakers' podium.
Days before I was to appear, I was informed by my booking agent that Harding University had left a tense and terse message on her recording machine regarding my upcoming visit. Bottom line: Harding had changed its mind and now did not want me. The reason given: "Bette Greene's ideas may be different from the ideas of Harding University."
Now considering their embrace of the world's top communist, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev spoke there in October that really was very curious. Very, very curious. Did that mean that while my ideas might be different from Harding's ideas, Harding's ideas were lovingly in synch with that of Russia's top communist?
Since I have many friends in Arkansas, I asked them to help me decipher the strange message on the machine. Who among us would not want to know why a freely given invitation would be so abruptly snatched away?
My Arkansas brain trust pointed out that everybody knows my novel, "Summer of My German Soldier," and a great many know "Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon. Maybe." But the folks who invited me may not have known about the book that I wrote in 1991 that was inspired by an actual event, the murder of a gay man.
"The Drowning of Stephan Jones" is not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit. How, I wanted to know, could it happen that three "good" boys could be prodded into such an evil deed. Well, one doesn't have to read very far in this novel to understand that I believe, and believe passionately, that violence is wrong. So morally and ethically wrong that the last time I checked, it was even written there in Exodus.
My friends, who know a lot about Harding's attitude, suggested to me that Harding is so opposed to homosexuality that even my repulsion at the murder of a gay man might be unacceptable. Is that what the call from the Harding representative about Bette Greene's ideas being different meant? Could it be that they did not share my outrage at the unprovoked murder of a young man?
I am devotedly non-violent. I even gave up arm wrestling when I was nine. But Harding must believe that I might have an idea or two that is dangerous. Dangerous because it does not precisely dovetail with what smells like the Harding administration program of higher indoctrination.
For more than 25 years, I have been standing before auditoriums filled with eager students who wanted to know what's in it for them when they read and what's in it for them when they write. In all those years, I have never had a university question my moral or intellectual fitness to appear before their students. No, not even once. So I think it's incumbent on Harding to explain themselves. Why now? Why Harding?
If what worked for other students worked for Harding students, then I'm convinced they would have left my lecture hall with a greater appreciation of the beauty and the power of the written word. So why did the university break our contract?
At Arkansas State University, I "modeled" teaching writing to English teachers and librarians in a class with the catchy title, "Bette Greene's Master Class on Writing". Professor Robert Lamm who is in charge of the Arkansas Writing Project informed me later that my approval rating with the group was so enthusiastic that it went "right off the chart."
The point here is pretty simple. If I did not harm (and, hopefully, even enhanced) those terrific students at Arkansas State, then why wouldn't I also have managed to do the same for the Harding students? I could point out that I have had the very great privilege of teaching my class in writing from Asia to Africa and from the United States to the United Kingdom. In all those years and with all those students there has been nothing but praise for my work with the young.
So why did a university break our verbal contract? What was the problem?
Whatever financial harm the university did to me by failing to pay me for the time that I had set aside for the school, the greater harm was unquestionably perpetrated on the Harding students. By their actions, Harding clearly expressed the sentiment that students must, at all costs, be discouraged from one of the very acts that make us human. That of thinking for ourselves.
Although I have never met a Harding student, I refuse to believe that these young adults are not fully capable of deciding for themselves the wisdom or lack of wisdom of any guest speaker. The university administration should have an equal amount of confidence in its student body.
If Harding University is committed to keeping out ideas that aren't precisely its ideas, then they are no more a university than Bob's School of Mechanics. I have no quarrel with Bob and his auto school. It fulfills a useful function and I like the name, a tribute to truth in advertising.
Perhaps Harding should reconsider the second part of its name, the university part. Webster's defines a university as a body of persons gathered at a particular place for the dissemination and assimilation of knowledge in advanced fields of study. Couldn't find a word from Webster about including mind or thought control in his definition of a university.
Late last summer, I was guided about Russia by a Moscow University professor who proudly informed me that after many years of intellectual bondage, the Russians are now, at last, free to speak, and to even think for themselves. So if Russians, deep in the heart of the Kremlin, are finally allowed freedom of thought, can Harding be this far behind?