Since Stephen Colbert and Cory Booker occupy divergent
spheres of American life, they unsurprisingly chose to deliver very different
commencement addresses. Colbert, who spoke at the University of Virginia on May
18, devoted much of his address to taking the University down a few pegs. In
addition to ribbing UVA’s founder, Thomas Jefferson–who, Colbert joked, was
passionate about “embracing diversity”–Colbert teased the pampered
students, whose accommodations were so luxurious that they could never do better
“unless your post-graduation plans involve subletting the Taj Mahal.”
Booker, who is something of a showman himself, nevertheless spent much of his
May 17th address at Washington University in St. Louis discussing
the graduates’ obligation to do good–typical commencement fare.
The speeches differed in more than tone, however. At their
core were two very different messages about the responsibilities today’s
graduates must bear.
After Colbert recited his light-hearted jabs, he turned to
what he called his “advice section.” He informed the graduates that
though up until now they had been coddled, they would soon learn that one
“must always make the path for yourself.” There would be no more
parental support, he warned. In fact, Colbert urged the students to abandon all
ties to the past, informing them that “do not owe the previous generation
anything.” In his view, the graduates should do whatever it takes to build
“the life and world that you want,” regardless of whether they receive
approval from their elders. Indeed, the only individuals to whom the graduates
owed anything were their peers, with whom they would build their new world.
Though it is unclear whether Colbert intended this advice to
be satirical, numerous outlets took his message seriously, describing it as
One hopes Colbert does not seriously believe in this message, however. Given
his context, it is absurd. Indeed, how can Colbert tell the graduates that they
don’t owe anything to the elders who had funded their college education and
much more? Moreover, how can he disdain the achievements of the past when
the graduates have devoted the past four years to understanding them? It’s
puzzling why Colbert’s message of radical individualism resonated with the
graduates, many of whom owe more to the past than they might wish to know.
Booker took the opposite tack. He argued that success is
defined not by material possessions but by the good done for others.
Indeed, in stark contrast to Colbert, he emphasized the importance of
interdependence: the notion, as Martin Luther King junior argued, that we
“are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a common
garment of destiny.” To that end, he urged the graduates to perform good deeds for generations past, present, and future: as examples, he recommended “Raising a
child’s reading level from 3rd to 4th…Filling out food stamps for someone
illiterate…Spending time with your elderly citizens recording their
history.” He intentionally suggested smaller-scale activities because, as
he noted, “the greatest ambitions must be made manifest in the simplest and
smallest of acts.” Unfortunately, he then became histrionic. He beseeched
the audience to envision a world where everyone has access to high-quality
college education and where the “ills of poverty” no longer exist.
Channelling King, he asked them to bring about a time when “righteousness
does roll down like water and justice like a mighty stream,” telling them
that “if you can see it, then be it.” So much for simple and small.
Melodramatic closer aside, Booker’s address was more suited
to the moment than was Colbert’s. Though did not say much that hasn’t already
been said, his message gave a better accounting of the graduates’ obligations. Colbert
recommended that the graduates continue thinking of themselves as children.
Booker urged them to become adults.