Two Commencement Talks That Got Attention

David McCullough and Fareed Zakaria.jpgThe Boston Globe recently reported that the journalist Fareed Zakaria delivered very similar if not identical addresses this commencement season at Harvard and at Duke. Zakaria was perfectly within his rights to imitate himself on the podiums of higher learning. He did nothing wrong. The article reporting his “sin” was intended, however opaquely, to rap him across the knuckles for lack of consideration that even if his speech was not unique for each occasion, his audience was. And there is the rub. In his defense, Zakaria noted that “These are students from two very similar institutions graduating within two weeks of each other. I don’t see how I could have come up with two completely different speeches without giving one group a second-rate talk. I’d rather come up with the same important message I think they need to hear.”

Harvard and Duke are similar insofar as they limit the number of people who can graduate with a unique degree embossed with the names of Harvard or Duke on a diploma. That diploma historically represented opportunity afforded to already privileged individuals, whether by legacy or by intelligence. Zakaria had wisdom to impart to the already privileged who understandably regard their privilege as earned rather than bestowed, a distinction without much of a difference in the short run but undoubtedly significant for who stays on top and who does not in the long run.

Appealing to an Audience of Deaf Ears

The fault was not with Zakaria’s sin of not disclosing beforehand that he was about to tell one group what he had told another. Rather, Harvard and Duke are part of a conspiracy of mixing entertainment with higher learning that the advent of social media has only made more intense and demanding with each commencement season. (Full disclosure: Over a quarter of a century ago, I made a similar argument in a published letter to the Wall Street Journal (July 10, 1986) in response to a lucid editorial by the late Irving Kristol who remarked on how many left-of-center commencement speakers there were at elite institutions. I wrote: “Irving Kristol passed up a strategic opportunity to propose reform of the commencement exercise itself. Why not ask every media celebrity — whether Bill Cosby, Bill Buckley, Bishop Tutu, Garry Trudeau, Ted Koppel, or all the other “news” makers and politicians — to abstain from delivering commencement addresses to the graduating classes of 1987?

Imagine what would happen. Committees charged with selecting a speaker would have to construct a much different list. No rock stars, no political pundits, no comic-strip writers, no sitcom celebrities, no broadcast journalists, no one who would deliver us from the evil of the left or right would be considered. Who would be asked? Perhaps award winners of another kind could be asked to exhort graduates to live examined lives. I propose that outstanding teachers be called upon to address graduates about the meaning of their own scholarly and teaching vocations. Perhaps Secretary of Education Bennett could provide a master list for colleges and universities. Since the audience is a captured one, administrators need not worry about their commencement ‘ratings.'”)

Of course, I was then appealing to a chorus of deaf ears, now much harder of hearing in an era of crass entitlement that is at the core of a debasing of the teaching vocation, so much so that elite institutions seem giddy about putting everything they teach online as if that democratizes learning. That Harvard and Duke are essentially interchangeable when it comes to most of the students and faculty who inhabit them suggests mostly the good fortune (some will call it luck; I do) that determines acceptance and rejection in the pyramid scheme of highest education.

Graduates, You Aren’t Special

And so it requires an adjustment in expectations to consider why institutions with high status and international reputations revel in the appearances of celebrity and famous figures. The answer is obvious: they are the best known among the audiences in attendance. Anyone lesser known would be considered disappointing, no matter what they had to say, alas. There is no such thing as an elite that does not produce its share of the famous among us, but YouTube is democratizing to whom we give attention. The speech delivered by Zakaria was posted on YouTube and as of mid-June, 2012 had been viewed over 28,000 times. In contrast, a commencement address delivered by William McCullough, Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, MA, has been viewed over a million and a quarter times not only in the United States but in Europe and Australia. What is called “going viral” suggests, for once, that the message may sometimes matter even more than the messenger.

What did Mr. McCullough, Jr. say that has aroused such interest? He told the students how different a wedding was from a commencement ceremony, how all the attention is given to the bride and none to the groom, but how all students at commencement dress in the same gown, whether male or female, scholar or slacker, thus concluding that “All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special. You are not special. You are not exceptional.” Call such calling out politically incorrect but it is well more than that. McCullough incited fascination among those most connected by social media because they understand a far different truth about what is special than the 28,000 viewers of Fareed Zakaria’s speech.

Not only is this a tale of two commencements, it is a tale of two psychologies of scale, the Harvard/Duke model deep within the mode of self-congratulation and the Wellesley High School model open to the possibility that individual initiative is still the coin of the American realm no matter how the odds may stack up in your favor or against you. McCullough told of truths once so well known and so well established that large compendia were once published to help the less enlightened and sophisticated to tap into those inherited truths in order to spread them as far and wide as possible.

The Corruption of Motivation

These truths belong to a higher realm than higher education routinely enacts. That we might find them in a high-school commencement address says something about one person reciting those truths, of course. But his moment matches entitlement and privilege with democratic awareness, something evermore awkward to attain in the hallowed spaces of elite higher education where too many actually believe they are not only special, not only entitled to be special, but that by those rights, they are deserving of everything they acquire. The corruption of motivation may be put on parents and teachers alike. They are both hostages to history. If you are at the top, if you are special, then the world only answers to you without you having to answer to anyone. This is the definition of celebrity, the corrupting force of social nature that dominates how elites are entertained.

Not all actors are celebrities, but all celebrities are actors. Entertainment has always been a part of education. And good teachers do, however much they may demur, put on better and worse acts. The best are not who they really are and the worst are not who they want to be. The lust for entertainment guarantees that the business of commencement addresses is unlikely to be subject to any major reform against the importation of celebrity and fame. The attractions of fame and fortune have come to overwhelm the unique experience of an education that should first be an end-in-itself even as it remains a definite means to a variety of ends. But listening to Mr. McCullough nonetheless puts a dent in the armor of entertainment by people too special to themselves and others.

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