(from City Journal, summer 1998)
Like many people, I can deliver a competent public speech without much fuss. But a commencement address is different. I can’t recall stewing about a speech as much as I did before donning academic garb and talking at the St. John’s College graduation in Santa Fe on May 17.
After all, student tolerance for these speeches is at an all-time low. It was low enough in our day. Nobody my age seems to remember a single thought expressed at his or her own graduation–or even the name of the speaker. But in our time, the residue of traditional formality seemed to protect even the most pedestrian speakers, who seemed unembarrassed about doling out 15 or 20 minutes of solemn advice on the proper way to chart one’s life course.
Today’s discomfort with commencement speaking accounts for all the ironic commentary often built into the talks themselves. Garry Trudeau said that the real purpose of the commencement speech is to make sure that no graduates get into the real world until they have been properly sedated. William F. Buckley Jr. once told a graduating class, “Do not think of me as your commencement speaker. Think of me as the last obstacle between you and your degree.” Art Buchwald warned graduates: “We’re leaving you a perfect world. Don’t screw it up.”
One sign of the times is that Southampton College brought in Kermit the Frog as commencement speaker two years ago. Kermit was apparently the first fictional amphibian to address graduates anywhere on Long Island. One marine biology major said, “It took me $50,000 and five hard years to get here, and on my big day I have to listen to a lecture from a green sock.”
Entertainment celebrities like Kermit are the latest fad in commencement speakers. Recent examples include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Yogi Berra, Jackie Mason, Sting (who received an honorary degree and emerged as Dr. Sting), and just about everybody you have ever seen in a network sitcom, including Jerry Seinfeld.
Entertainment is what today’s commencement talks are all about. One friend who had just spoken at a large western university’s graduation faxed me his text, which was very funny. The whole speech was humor–absolutely no uplift at all. “It’s the students’ day; they should have fun,” he said. Besides, these new grads were weaned on sitcoms. They expect a joke every 20 seconds.
Has it come to this: that only the hilarious, the famous, or well-known TV sidekicks can talk at graduations? A Nexis search of recent commencement addresses was vaguely reassuring. Perhaps half of the talks were either humor-free or delivered by the not-yet-famous. Nexis said nothing about whether the students paid any attention.
After a good deal of agonizing, I decided to open with a long section of allegedly rollicking humor, then glide as smoothly as possible into a heavy-duty adult message, which I informally called “Polonius II.” The alleged humor was a send-up of the basic commencement speech, crammed with a bent version of every cliché ever inflicted by old and middle-aged speakers on the captive young. Sample line: “Years from now, when you leave your parents’ homes and get your first jobs, you will realize that in a sense you have not really left St. John’s. . . .”
The graduates laughed a lot, and one or two even cut in with their own one-liners. Since I had their full attention, “Polonius II” went over well, too. I talked about the emptiness of the modern no-content version of tolerance, citing the report from a professor at Hamilton College that 10 to 20 percent of his students can’t bring themselves to criticize the Nazi slaughter of the Jews, since judging other cultures, however murderous, is currently regarded as wrong.
Later, a woman came up to tell me that she had attended 19 St. John’s commencements, and my speech was definitely the second best. This didn’t seem like the right time to argue that the commencement speech is likely to go the way of the Latin Mass. It seemed more appropriate just to beam at full throttle and thank her for the silver medal.