Of all the graduation speakers who presided this year, none has had a more powerful effect than Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spoke to the Harvard class of '78. His forceful message about the decline of the West sent most of the students into a depression.
I know this because I got a call the other day from a friend of mine. She asked me if I would talk to her son, who had been part of this year's graduating class and unfortunately had heard Solzhenitsyn's address.
Gerard was sitting on the front steps of the house drinking a beer and staring out into space.
"Gerard," I said, "you've got to pull yourself together."
"What's the use? Modern American society is doomed."
"How can you say that Gerard? You just graduated from Harvard, the most elite school in the nation. The world is your oyster."
"You can say that, but you weren't at my graduation. We're suffering from a psychic disease of the 20th century."
"We are?" I said in surprise.
"Yes. We're cowards. We've all lost our courage."
"That's true, but you've got to rise above it," I told him.
"By getting a job."
"If I get a job I'll only be contributing to the state of spiritual exhaustion that is part of the West's malaise."
"But if you do find a job you might get us out of the fix we're in. It cost your parents $50,000 to put you through school, not counting the Pinto they brought you that had to be recalled. Surely you owe them something."
"All I have to show for my education is TV stupor and a penchant for intolerable music. I have a licentious press and the fad media to blame for all my problems."
"Gerard, everything you say may be true, but you're still master of your own soul. If the Harvard class of '78 drops out, who will our leaders be 20 years from now? Who will take over the Mobil Oil Corp., or AT&T, or the Ford Foundation? Where will we get our cabinet officers or our economists from? Are you going to leave it to the Yale class of '78 to solve the problems that the West must face?"
"It's no use. Uncle Arthur," he said, sipping his beer. "We have put our freedom first, before our responsibility. We're sick because we've lost our national will. We don't know who we are."
"Right," I said. "So it's up to you to tell us who we are. This county listens to people who went to Harvard. It's not like Princeton or Stanford where they don't know what they're talking about. You owe it to us to pass on what you have learned at Harvard so that our civilization can be saved."
"It's not that simple," Gerard said. "You're asking me to join a free society where everyone marches to a different drummer. I prefer to sit on this stoop and not be part of the rabble that has as its goal moral mediocrity."
"That's your privilege in a free country. Gerard. But sitting on this stoop is not going to get us out of our spiritual dilemma.
"The only thing to do is to raise our sights and search our hearts and overcome our readiness to accept material well-being. I can't do it, Gerard, because I went to the University of Southern California. But you can, because you were educated in Cambridge."
Just then Gerard's father drove up. He got out of his car and stomped up. He said angrily to his son, "Are you still sitting on this stoop?"
Gerard didn't say anything.
His father grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him up.
"Solzhenitsyn or no Solzhenitsyn," he said, flinging Gerard toward the car. "You get your butt out of here and don't come back until you've got a job."
Gerard fear in his eyes, picked up the car keys from the sidewalk and said, "Sure, Pop, you don't have to get mad."