Writing about the controversies of this commencement season that have engulfed activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, my colleague Katie Zezima suggests that “[as] more and more speakers back out of what is traditionally seen as a speech less about politics and more about dispensing pearls of wisdom to newly minted graduates, two factors are at play: politics (don’t act surprised) and a shift from academia embracing the free exchange of ideas to shunning those with divergent opinions.”
I do not disagree with her that commencement addresses have been caught up in protest culture. Graduation ceremonies are, after all, a final opportunity for students to assert some control over their campuses before they head off for a less-predictable, wide-open world. As the Nation’s Michelle Goldberg put it in a conversation with Vox, “People despair of changing things at the national level or the state level. But you can change things in the little self-contained world of your college campus.”
But in the debates about speakers, rather than the speeches they might have delivered, I wonder if the purpose of commencement addresses is as clear as Zezima suggests. Are they supposed to be fonts of life advice? A final lecture, recalling the classrooms students are leaving behind? An encounter with the sorts of challenging ideas students might encounter in the workplace and their new friendships? An assertion of the value of free speech?
At the Daily Beast, Olivia Nuzzi suggests that commencement addresses are a final opportunity for colleges and universities to try to correct for certain tendencies characteristic of the students they serve. “The entire point of college is to be exposed to different things,” she wrote. “Different types of people, different ideas — and maybe some of those people will hail from organizations that negatively impacted poor countries, or maybe they were partly responsible for a war that ate up the country’s resources and resulted in human rights abuses and lots of needless death.”
At the XX Factor, Amanda Hess casts a more jaundiced eye on the situation, suggesting that these protests are the result of a contradiction between conflicting expectations students have for their class speakers. “They want their commencements to be both high in profile and rich in personal meaning,” she argues. “That’s not just political correctness gone awry; that’s a bunch of 22-year-olds thinking they are owed exactly the experience they want.”
But these perspectives focus more on the résumés and past experiences of speakers than they do on what makes for a good commencement address. Celebrating graduates’ accomplishments while preparing them for the different set of challenges that lie ahead of them, making parents feel good about their investments of time and money and getting some challenging ideas into the mix and avoiding platitudes and self-aggrandizement is a genuinely difficult task.
John McCain’s 2006 commencement address at Columbia University was a drag not so much for his lengthy defense of U.S. involvement in Iraq but for the section of the speech in which McCain hectored the whippersnappers to listen to their elders. Telling students, “When I was a young man, I was quite infatuated with self-expression, and rightly so because, if memory conveniently serves, I was so much more eloquent, well-informed and wiser than anyone else I knew,” is not going to provoke any particularly powerful moments of self-recognition and improvement. It sounds cranky and self-interested.
Going light is risky, too. I remember Anderson Cooper’s joke that he was old enough to have fathered those of us in the graduating class more than I do his fairly good advice about creating your own career path when conventional routes fail.
J.K. Rowling, whose 2008 commencement address at Harvard remains one of the best in recent memory, actually joked about the forgettable nature of so many of these speeches on beginning her own. “This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard,” she joked.
Rowling’s speech was memorable for the way it touched on two themes: her own experiences of profound failure and poverty and the importance of imagination, moral and fictional.
Rowling challenged the graduates to consider that their résumés and the name of the school on their diplomas would not save them from making grievous mistakes, a point that cannot have been comfortable for the school that issued her invitation. And she recalled her own experiences working at Amnesty International, where the “exquisite courtesy” of torture survivors and the tea she served to activists whose parents had been murdered by the regimes they protested expanded her sense of her own good fortune and responsibility. It is a speech that pushes its listeners, but without making a fetish of controversy or working to enhance Rowling’s own reputation.
The point to which Rowling built was an excellent way of framing many debates about commencement addresses we have today. But, unlike McCain’s lament, it also was powerfully written, convincing and appropriate to the occasion.
“Many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know,” Rowling said. “I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.”
That was a sharp point in a speech full of them. What made the address so good was not that J.K. Rowling was famous, or that J.K. Rowling was universally beloved, though both are true. Rather, it was that Rowling took care to craft a speech in service of the 2008 Harvard graduating class, praising their accomplishments and spurring them onward. When soon-to-be graduates think about what they want in a class speaker, they would do well to add that sort of thoughtful attention to their lists. That way, they might actually get an address that is as memorable as the hullabaloo that preceded it.