Among the eloquent witnesses to a university’s core purpose of cultivating intellectual and moral virtue are its mission statement, admission pamphlets, coat of arms, library inscriptions, and commencement speeches.

Pardon?  Commencement speeches?

Nowadays either the potential laughter or the shock value (preferably both) seems to be the main criterion behind invitations to address the graduates. Proudly announced well in advance, the commencement speaker choice arouses expectation and media coverage. On that special day, the pomp and circumstance give way to the stand-up comedy (eg, Conan O’Brien (Dartmouth 2011), Stephen Colbert (Northwestern 2011), Ellen DeGeneres (Tulane 2009), Jon Stewart (College of William & Mary 2004)).

Or sometimes it paves the way to a pitch from a well-known figure whose public stance clashes in some fundamental way with the university’s professed values (eg, Kathleen Sebelius (Georgetown 2012), E.O. Wilson (De Paul 2012), Barack Obama (Notre Dame 2009)). Framing the so-honored celebrity are administrators and faculty in full academic regalia who look sometimes embarrassed and sometimes complicit. On YouTube the commencement speech goes on enlightening future generations and speaking volumes about what ails much of higher education.

I am not advocating that commencement addresses should be either jeremiads or platitudes. Real debate and humor are not inconsistent with academic goals. An object of celebration and gravitas, a commencement speech’s charm springs from vivid memories, bite and powerful delivery. Most rate high in all of these.

Yet, out of the entertaining blend of silver-lined failures, inspiring morsels of wisdom must be served. Paradoxically, often such celebrity speeches sum up the philosophical underpinnings of the graduates’ college education, only now publicly punctuated with an off-color joke or protesters’ shouts.  

Quite likely, the graduates have already learned to doubt, to dismiss all tradition and dogma, and to trust that everything is relative. They have confirmed that the individual is the standard of judgment and that, within this subjectivist Weltanschauung (yes, they studied this term), aesthetic values (eg, imagination, creativity, ingenuity, originality) trump ethical virtues. They also already know that it is their duty and due to “be yourself” and to “follow your bliss”. Theirs is the power and the glory, for they are young and smart.

The commencement speech’s favorite anti-dogma, self-realization rhetoric forgets that it is, after all, a set of held opinions and beliefs, and, so, “dogma”. As engaging tale of obstacles overcome and opportunities pursued, its life snippets are suggested stepping stones for a successful life.

In the face of criticism, administrators reasonably argue that universities should encourage debate and the exchange of ideas. Yet, is a debate a one-way message to a generally cheerful, well-disposed audience? Do freedom of speech and expression require that universities lend a prestigious podium from which to proselytize? The polemical speakers readily oblige, showing that they are capable of being funny and humble, and that they too have lives; the comedians, that they also can do their homework well.

What does it say, though, of the college? Of higher education? Who stands to gain the most? Have the opportunity costs been envisioned? Should a commencement address be primarily a self-aggrandizement opportunity or a unique teachable moment? What will the graduates remember? The marquee name? The public uproar?

I remember well a commencement speech. The speaker, a middle-aged well-respected lawyer, was not a celebrity. I still remember his few and fatherly words to the Juris Doctor graduates, more than 15 years ago.

First, he reminded the proud graduates that their success was largely due to their families and friends who had stayed the course during their grueling studies, patiently listening and helping. Second, drawing on his own life experiences, he reminded them that their mission as lawyers was not their own material enrichment but their contribution toward social justice and the respect of human dignity.

Their privileged competence and society’s investment in their education made that duty ever so pressing. His call to humility, gratitude, and justice was short, simple, but powerful. There were no bells and whistles, no sound bites, no double entendres, no standing ovation. Just a short, sobering message calling for intellectual and moral virtue. Stay grateful, stay virtuous. A worthwhile reminder.

Alma Acevedo, PhD, teaches courses in applied ethics and conducts research in this field.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet