The season of college commencements is upon us. In most cases there is joy, mixed with equal measures of sadness and relief, as seniors march to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" and pick up their diplomas.
It's a time for photo-ops and hugs, but also for follies of the sort that garner nation attention. Take the recent debacle at tiny Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. To show just how much diversity matters there, they invited convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal to give the commencement address via a tape recording made from death row. Convinced to a certainty that Abu-Jamal is an innocent victim of our racist judicial system, the students were out to make a statement — and they did.
But why stop there? Certainly there are other even "worthier" candidates — that is, if a divergent point of view is the only qualification that in the end really matters. What about Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, a man who could provide enough audio tapes about the evils of technology to stretch an afternoon graduation ceremony until breakfast the next morning? Or what about Timothy McVeigh of the infamous Oklahoma City bombing? Surely each of them would have something interesting to say about how important it is to back up one's opinion with other people's blood.
But just when I thought that Antioch College was the hands-down winner in this year's commencement follies sweepstakes along comes Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. The soft-spoken Fred Rogers of television's "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" fame was scheduled to be its commencement speaker and many Old Dominion seniors became upset. Too juvenile, too babyish, not them, many muttered. So, in a last minute effort to pull the plug on the warm-and-fuzzy Mr. Rogers, they circulated petitions asking that he be replaced. And by whom? Well, that's not entirely clear, but at least some of the campus sentiment is for none other than Monica Lewinsky. She would certainly put Old Dominion on the commencement speaker map — as a telling case of just how far one can now go on the wings of shameful behavior and widespread publicity. One doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry about the bad judgment of graduating seniors at Old Dominion. If Mr. Rogers is in fact an inappropriate commencement speaker it is because his message about loving kindness is too mature for these spoiled brats.
I first knew that we were headed for such yearly embarrassments during the early l970s when every campus committee, including the one that chooses commencement speakers, had to have at least one student representative. As one of the more dubious legacies of the late l960s, participatory democracy was to that time as "diversity" is to ours — namely, the trump card that no administrator could argue against, much less beat. At my college a student once made an excited pitch for Winston Churchill as our graduation speaker, this in l972, because as he rightly pointed out, Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech had put a tiny Midwestern college on the map. He couldn't remember the college's name, but no matter: he had the general music down right.
What he didn't know, however, was that Churchill had died a handful of years before; and when a dean on the committee pointed this out, the student shot him a mean-spirited look and insisted that "all administrators lie." The dean had no choice but to swallow his tongue (students can lose their cool but professionals apparently can't), and I vowed, then and there, to keep my day job as a professor.
The commencement follies boomed along in high gear during the decades that followed. At one point, Luke and Laura of television's "General Hospital" topped the list of most invited commencement speakers. And why not? Undergraduates followed the afternoon soaps more attentively than they did their early morning classes. In more recent years, name recognition is what matters. As a result, this commencement season will be filled with personalities known for being known. None of these honorary degree recipients will likely have an ounce of intellectual respectability or a single idea appropriate for the occasion. But in an age where elitism travels under a cloud and truth, rather like God, is no longer said to exist, squabbling about who delivers the commencement address strikes many as small potatoes. If too many colleges give their students a four-year diet of bread, circuses, and fraternity parties, why bother to bring in a highbrow at the last minute? Mumia Abu-Jamal or Monica Lewinsky makes them happy.
By contrast, a
liberal education worth its salt causes people to think, and thus to become
uncomfortable. Socrates would have been the worst possible commencement
speaker imaginable. If he were available today, I bet he would not get
a single nibble.
Copyright (c) 2000 News World Communications. Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times.
Sanford S. Pinsker is the Arthur and Katherine Shadek Humanities Professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. The Irascible Professor agrees with the general sentiments that Prof. Pinsker expressed in his Washington Times article. However, he does think that fame or celebrity alone should not disqualify a person from delivering a commencement address. For example, this year the commencement speaker at Franklin and Marshall was Bill Cosby, someone who has something to say that is worth listening to in spite of his fame.
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