The commencement speaker tradition is imploding on itself, and no one’s safe.
Student protests have already shuttered would-be speeches from Condoleezza Rice, who was supposed to speak at Rutgers University, and International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde, who was slated to do the honors at Smith College. Then, on Tuesday, former University of California, Berkeley, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau withdrew from Haverford College’s ceremony after protests pertaining to his support of police actions at a 2011 Occupy protest.
The ensuing discussion has been heated and sharply partisan:
So are there any acceptable commencement speakers left?— Megan McArdle (@asymmetricinfo) May 13, 2014
maybe college students protest commencement speakers because in a sane world these same speakers wouldn't be regarded as paragons of wisdom!— noah kulwin (@nkulw) May 14, 2014
The solution is simple and impossibly elegant: Let’s ban commencement speakers. Who do they benefit, besides themselves?
At best, they’re a glossy, overpriced distraction from the graduates whose accomplishment the event is meant to celebrate. At worst, they’re a colossal waste of money—a big-name speaker might easily be paid more than an assistant professor makes in a year—and a thin excuse for moneyed celebrities to shove self-serving platitudes at The Leaders of Tomorrow. You might disagree with the protests that convinced Condoleezza Rice to back out of Rutgers’ commencement ceremony, but you can hardly dispute that her $35,000 fee might be better spent elsewhere on campus.
Which is why the only way to end the arms race for an A-List commencement speaker—and the publicity that comes along with it—is to end the practice altogether.
That’s not to suggest no one should speak at commencement ceremonies. College presidents should still say a few words, as custom dictates. So should a graduating student—the class president, maybe, or whichever aspiring orator desires and deserves the job.
But the tradition of hiring a big-brand celebrity or politician to impart wisdom to hungover graduates and their geriatric grandparents has grown tired. So has the awarding of the “honorary degree,” an academic distinction that has served no earthly purpose during the four centuries it’s existed, but has become especially confusing now that we’re debating whether it confers a political endorsement.
So let’s ax it. It’s not as if the graduates of the future will be missing that many great speeches. Most commencement addresses are boring as hell.
Worse still, the vast hulk of them revolves around a particularly awful cliché, which goes something like “As you begin your journey...” or “As you embark in life….” Scan any commencement address; you’ll find sentences that start with “You enter the world right now...” (that’s Brian Williams) or “The world you are going into that you will shape...” (President Clinton) or “You know the world you are entering...” (New York Public Library President Anthony Marx).
Beyond the hackneyed nature of those phrases, they also convey a worrisome logic—that entry into “the world” begins upon receipt of a college degree and that life on campus is somehow not commensurate with “real life.” Graduation isn’t where “life” or even “adulthood” begins—it’s just where student loan payments begin. So let’s stop conditioning college students to believe that they are not yet “real people,” not until they are sufficiently degreed and gainfully employed, and that their actions do not yet have consequences beyond the quad, especially when those actions may well include acts of sexual violence or thoroughly institutionalized racism.
And while we’re at it, let’s retire the suggestion that a college degree is a prerequisite for any sort of “change the world” ambitions. Mark Zuckerberg, who turns 30 this week, has changed the world—maybe for the better, probably not. Either way, he did so before earning a college degree, an item he still does not possess. You don’t need a college degree to change the world, and you probably won’t change the world even if you have one.
Of course, not all commencement addresses trade in these tired notions. Jon Stewart roundly mocked the “real world” clutch in a 2004 commencement address at Harvard, and that brings up another point: Sometimes commencement speeches are not terrible. Sometimes, even, they are good.
But those speeches are ruined, too. Or at least in 2014, they will be. Because of the inherent publicity for the event and the prominence of the speaker, they are made into bite-sized capsules, memes or—worse—inspirational viral headlines. (It happened to me, after Joss Whedon kindly informed my graduating class, “You are all going to die.”) Remember that great David Foster Wallace speech from 2005? Try enjoying it now that it’s been plopped onto Upworthy with the headline “The Earth-Shatteringly Amazing Speech That’ll Change the Way You Think About Adulthood.”
No students want their graduation ceremony turned into a viral Internet phenomenon. If they did, they’d simply ask a Shiba Inu dog to give the commencement address. The dog wouldn’t charge so much money, either.
But I digress. The time to act is now, so college students can stop wasting time protesting commencement speakers and start protesting more pressing concerns, like the specter of joblessness and debt that awaits them on the other side of the graduation procession.