Tag Archives: commencement address

Need a Commencement Speech? Try This One—It’s Free!

This is a generation that faces new challenges. You are not millennials, not Gen Xers, you are quite literally in a class by yourselves—the class of 2017. All around us we see changes we never expected, changes that demand acceptance—or “resistance.” There are economic and political alterations in Europe, Asia, the Middle East. They are accompanied by revolutions in communication, in science, in art. Thanks to the education you’ve received over the last four years, you’re well-equipped to handle these challenges. Good luck. Not that you’ll need it.

Oops. That was from a pre-millennial commencement speech. As you can see, it was a hit with school officials and alumni and the graduates could recite every word, even to this day.  Here’s this year’s speech:

I am a recognizable name. My achievements will be duplicated by few, if any, of you.

This is not a matter of arrogance or superiority. My IQ is no larger than yours, my background no more illustrious. It’s just that I had to make my own way in college and in life. Believe it or not, we had to read books that upset us. If you had to do that today, it would be called lit boot camp. Your courses outdid themselves with political correctness on steroids, identifying the emotional triggers in the classics and dismissing them as harmful and irrelevant. And who could blame them? Reading books without “trigger warnings ” might upset fragile sensibilities, never acknowledged by the unwary professors in my time.

When I attended this institution, we were exposed to a barrage  of philosphical, political and sociological ideas. Some were agreeable, some were challenging, some were repulsive. But they were all vital components of the undergraduate experience. In those vanished days we were so naïve. You, on the other hand, are well versed in White Privilege, Cultural Appropriation, and Safe Spaces.

In my time, there were no holes pre-cut in the knees and thighs of our jeans—we had to cut them open ourselves, with little guidance from elders, and there were no safe rooms. There were no unsubstantiated accusations of date rape, no charges of “fascism” from people whose parents were not even alive when the Third Reich was in the ascendant. (That Reich, by the way, found many early supporters in the German universities.) I can’t believe we missed out on all the fun you millennials were having.

In the day, my generation was thought of as the real game-changer. You know–teach-ins, speakouts, loud protests.  But these were modest indeed by your standards.  Maybe it started when you were invited to “Rate My Professors,” as if they were a new reality show.  When my generation invited people to speak, people of all shades in the spectrum of ideas came, addressing us with discretion and dignity. We returned the favor. If we challenged them it was with courtesy, and they departed without incident. Sound familiar? Of course not. During your college years, when those with unpopular ideas were invited to speak, vehement objections were heard—and the speakers were quickly “disinvited.” On the rare occasions when they did appear, they were intimidated or even injured.

Talk about fascism: Could Jason Riley, a black conservative and a star of the Wall St. Journal, be peacefully heard at colleges and universities? Nein.  Could Professor Charles Murray  be listened to quietly by people who hadn’t read  his books and had no idea what he wrote? Nein. Bestselling author Heather Mac Donald? Nein. Would provocateurs like Milo Yiannoppoulos  and Ann Coulter be tolerated?  Nein nein, nein.

And that’s looking at the glass as half full. Looking at as half empty notes that you have turned Amendment Number One into Enemy Number One. Look around you. Almost everyone speaks in the same tone, expresses the identical views. To violate this conformity is to invite outrage, ostracisim, violence. You have been called snowflakes. This is unfair to such flakes everywhere. For they have character—no two are alike.

Your college president knows this and will do nothing about it. He is busy with something else. Nobody knows what. College, once a place for the exchange of ideas, a spacious home for the liberal arts, has become at best a serious joke, at worst a national scandal. You’re not entirely to blame for your post high-chair tantrums; no one ever dared to say “no” to you. No one helped you get the hang of a  a pluralistic marketplace of ideas, least of all a timorous faculty ever fearful that they might say something that might lose them tenure.

I don’t envy you folks. Out there is a world full of people who do not look to authorities for a list of approved Halloween costumes or novels without any offensive  words.  You’ll have to make your own way among employees with different ideas, and among employers who don’t set aside safe spaces. For those of you wounded by opinions you haven’t even heard yet, good luck. You’ll need it.


The Remarkable Class of 2015 Must Save the Planet

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all commencement speeches say more or less the same thing.    All that really changes in the annual dusting off of “follow your heart,” “fix the world,” and “dare to face the great challenges” is the precise address of the heartfelt, world-fixing, great challenge that lies ahead.  The space race? Poverty? AIDS?

This year it was that ever-imminent existential threat to humanity, that undeniable theory that explains everything but predicts nothing: catastrophic anthropogenic global warming.

“We are now deep in the most serious environmental crisis in human history,” Bill Nye (the “Science Guy”) admonished Rutgers’ grads at the university’s 249th commencement on May 18. Comparing climate change to World War II, he urged the Scarlet Knights to take arms against the 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide invading our atmosphere. “You all can be the Next Great Generation,” Nye advised. “You can, dare I say it, Change the World.” In twenty-two minutes, he invoked that imperative six times.

“Don’t think that you can change the world by sending each other e-mail petitions,” Bill McKibben, founder of the activist environmental group 350.org, warned at Grinnell College in a speech about the urgency of climate activism. Real change evidently requires picketing and chanting. He recounted how Gus Speth, former chair of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, claimed his most important position was a cell he shared with McKibben after their arrests for illegally protesting the Keystone Pipeline.

NASA administrator Major General Charles F. Bolden Jr. joked at Rochester Institute of Technology that he’d seen from space a giant “help wanted” sign plastered on the feverish CO2-blanketed Earth. The planet needs entrepreneurial citizens who are “not afraid to change what they are doing from one day to the next or one year to the next,” he said.

Not to be outdone, Naomi Klein on June 6 sermonized on the magnitude of the task: “It is true that we have to do it all. That we have to change everything.” Riffing off her bestseller, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Klein advised College of the Atlantic grads to give up piecemeal lifestyle changes and instead create a “massive and organized global movement” for systemic revolution on “climate change, wealth concentration, and racialized violence.”

It’s understandable why college students should care about the climate. After all, climate change is set to slash coffee production, and it’s the real force behind the rape crisis on campus. Global warming entrenches oppression, and, per Klein herself, it perpetuates racism.  Just about the only thing climate change hasn’t been blamed for is the student debt debacle—though Robert Redford did list the two on par in his talk at Colby College: “You’re stepping into a world that’s, well, pretty rough.…You’ve got climate change, you’ve got debt, you’ve got wars, you’ve got political paralysis.”

President Obama added a few more faults to global warming’s record. Addressing Coast Guard Academy cadets in May, he apologized for the difficulties they would face in the line of duty: “I’m here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security.  And make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country.”

The gravity of such risks makes ignoring them a high crime. “Denying (climate change) or refusing to deal with it endangers our national security,” Obama warned. At Tufts, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright praised “scientists who believe that conservation is a national security imperative” and denounced those who thought it “a four-letter word.” Comparing the climate change “consensus” to that on the health risks of smoking, Nye at Rutgers was perhaps the most direct of all: “Hey deniers — cut it out.”

The promise of technology to improve society opened a schism among the speakers. “Here in 2015, I don’t think we can count on entrepreneurs to invent everything we need fast enough,” Nye mused, even as he asked Rutgers grads to invent better batteries to store solar and wind energy. “So-called techno-optimism is just another way of living in denial.” Albright said technology had enabled “groups who use religion as a license of murder, as if God’s commandment were ‘thou shalt kill.’” McKibben, on the other hand, praised the solar panel for making the climate crisis “no longer necessary.” Bolden gave Gettysburg College grads a “mandate” to lead us to Mars and “tackle” climate change, and asked RIT grads to invent a way to “cure the previously incurable” planet.

All agreed that inaction was not an option. “Others might prefer to opt out of addressing the big challenges of these times. You don’t have that luxury,” Bolden advised at RIT. Michelle Obama echoed at Oberlin, “No, you don’t get to be precious or cautious or cynical. No, not when the earth is warming and the oceans are rising.”

McKibben cast climate activism as a civic duty: “The answer (to global warming) has to be citizenship. Aggressive, engaged, and occasionally impolite citizenship.” This is a moment, he pleaded, “When we desperately need you as full-fledged citizens.” Like Klein, he sees the climate campaign as part of a systemic revolution. “It is a good idea to change your light bulb” and drive an electric car, he averred, but only a “fool” could imagine such personal decisions capable of solving climate change: “This is a structural and systemic problem which means that the answers are structural and systemic.”

Michelle Obama listed climate change among “the revolutions of your time,” an opportunity to “wake up and play your part in our great American story.” Albright congratulated Tufts students for their “protests and marches” on sexual assault, racism, and climate change, which had made the university a “light on the hill” and “shown yourselves to be active citizens.”

“Class of 2015, you have to vote!” Nye chided, noting that “Right now, it’s still too easy for any of us to dump our carbon waste in the world’s atmosphere.” Any who didn’t care to vote, he said, should “please just shut up, so the rest of us can get things done.”

Perhaps the real draw of activism, though, is it’s answering an internal longing for significance. Long-time activist Mindy Lubber rejoiced in the “kindred spirits” she found at Green Mountain College in Vermont, a place “that warms an environmentalist’s heart.” Poet Julia Alvarez urged Middlebury graduates to mimic an environmentalist arrested at a protest who told a reporter, “I’m here because I have a soul.” “May you have a soulful beautiful life,” was Alvarez’s parting advice.

Flattering the audience seldom goes amiss, but it might be worth noting that even skeptics of global warming and supporters of the Keystone Pipeline have souls.  And with an eighteen-year pause in global warming and our planet healthier than it’s been in centuries, this year’s grads might have been better served with some other chestnuts.  Don’t believe everything you are told.  And the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side of the sustainability fence.

The Washington Post Gets It Wrong on Sebelius

The Washington Post and the president of Georgetown University have defended the appearance of Kathleen Sebelius at a commencement ceremony on the grounds of basic academic mission. The Post cited “the proper role of a university and the importance of vigorous, open debate, even–or perhaps especially–involving matters of intense controversy and religious disagreement.” In his open letter to the community, President DeGioia declared, “We are a university, committed to the free exchange of ideas.”

Continue reading The Washington Post Gets It Wrong on Sebelius

If You Must Give a Commencement Speech…

(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.

Continue reading If You Must Give a Commencement Speech…