Wasted Angst over Worthless Commencement Speeches

Here’s your spring challenge. If you have graduated from any school more than five years ago, name your commencement speaker. You can?  Okay–tell me one thing of substance that he or she said. Of course you can’t. If the speaker upstaged the grads, that person should be beaten with a bound copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and in the Home.

The irrelevance of commencement speeches underscores this year’s graduation embarrassments: red faces at Johns Hopkins and Rutgers when Ben Carson and Condoleezza Rice withdrew, Brandeis's shame in lifting an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and (just yesterday) the decision of Christine Lagarde’s to skip Smith College’s commencement because of planned student and faculty protests. It's time to stop the nonsense and follow Amherst College's practice of not using outside commencement speakers. Graduation speakers simply aren’t worth the ­sturm und drang.

Graduation speakers fall into six general categories:

            --Flavor of the Moment: A person chosen simply for being famous/infamous and who has next to nothing to do with education–like Ben Carson, Oprah Winfrey, Lady Gaga, or Sean Combs. If you recall your speaker, chances are good s/he fell into this category.
            --Faded Sunset: Someone who used to be famous and retains name recognition, but hasn’t done much lately–like Bill Shatner or Gloria Steinem.
            --Who? Someone that impresses the hell out of administrators, but students have never heard of–like Christine Lagarde.
            --Highly Inappropriate Speakers: Like Rice, Carson, or Lagarde. Not that they’re unaccomplished, but a commencement is no time to start a political brouhaha.
            --Famed Alum Makes Good: Perfect for those "you-can-do-it-too" speeches, but chosen mainly because administrators hope to cultivate this person as a board member and/or donor.
            --Local Business Leader: See Famed Alum Makes Good.

Smith flunked twice. Very few students actually knew Lagarde's name before she was announced. They knew of the International Monetary Fund that she heads, though. That doesn't make Lagarde a bad person, but when your majors include lots of budding economists, sovereignty savvy government students, erstwhile social workers, and idealists longing to work with grassroots development agencies and non-profits, she's not an intelligent choice. She was picked because she's an accomplished woman (which is, in a round about way, an insulting way to choose for a women's college). Moreover, Smith is still officially a liberal arts college, which meant Lagarde pushed all the wrong Smith-is-becoming-a-vocational-school panic buttons.

That said, I disagree with the notion of announcing speakers and then making it so hot that they back out. If you invite someone and they accept, debate their views before or after the speech, but practice civility toward the person. If you must, stand in silent protest when the speaker comes to the podium, but don't let your final college experience be an assault on academic freedoms you professed to cherish for four years. Besides, the real beef is with decision-makers out of touch with the campus culture, not the invitee. In the end, though, why endure angst over a commencement speech you'll soon forget?    

Want to remember the commencement speech over which you’re blanking? Here are the elements of approximately 99.6% of every graduation speeches ever delivered:

            --Congratulations to the graduates and a nod to the "difficult challenges" they've overcome (as if they've been digging coal for the past four years).
            --Thanks to parents.
            --Assurance that the graduates are really special–just what the helicoptered generation does not need to hear.
            --An inspiring story, personal or anecdotal.
            --Humorous remarks.
            --Banal and recycled comments on the value of education.
            --Observations that the world to which grads are being released will be filled with struggles, problems, and conundrums that society is waiting for them to solve.
            --An encomium to their proven track record of perseverance.
            --A call to be creative, grounded, flexible, and committed to life-long learning.
            --An assurance that grads are uniquely poised to overcome all obstacles and live a rewarding life.

Just change the order, anecdotes, jokes, and adjectives and you too can give a graduation speech. It helps if you go to the trouble to become (or have been) famous.

I say copy Amherst and just let the president deliver the speech. Eliminate angst. Bust out the boilerplate. Hand out the sheepskin. To students: Check your cell phones during the speech. Go party. Wake up the next day, pack your gear, and prepare for realities not mentioned in the speech.


No comments: