Graduations are a special time. The president of my high school senior class made a campaign promise that our class of about 650 would graduate on campus. Our school was in the process of building an auditorium and we usually held graduations at a neighboring high school. He fulfilled his promise and we graduated from the non-air-conditioned gym on a dreadfully hot day. Whether due to the heat or excitement, I lost my voice as we were singing the Alma mater and spoke only at a whisper later at my party.
What I remember from my college graduation was that B. F. Skinner was the speaker. As a psychology major, I was impressed we had him. I was thrilled to be finished with college, the first in my family to get their BA. I later went on to get my Master’s at a Jesuit school and they had a lovely outside reception though I do not recall the speaker.
Through the years, I have attended many graduations from Ipswich, Mass for my brother’s graduation from seminary, to my niece’s graduation from the University of South Carolina in Columbia. I also have attended the graduations of the schools where I have taught and this year managed to be at the one in Maryland and the one in South Carolina. It was wonderful to see my students on that special occasion and to hear the student speeches. Graduations bring people together. They are a time of celebration, not just for the graduate but also for their family and friends.
It is often interesting to see whom a particular school works so hard to get to be their speaker. Big bucks are paid and reports noted that this year, schools overall were going for substance over the glitzy due to the economy and other factors in our country. Having said that though, one has to wonder about Dartmouth, where Conan 0’Brien was the commencement speaker. He started his speech with these words,
“Before I begin, I must point out that behind me sits a highly admired President of the United States and decorated war hero while I, a cable television talk show host, has been chosen to stand here and impart wisdom. I pray I never witness a more damning example of what is wrong with America today.”
It does tell you what our culture values. Often the entertainment celebrity wins over those who are accomplished in other fields. And to think Conan, who did lose his job this past year, partially due to low ratings, was considered by Dartmouth to be the kind of commencement speaker they were willing to spend thousands of dollars for. I think his quote says it all and unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. Entertainment and sport personalities speak loudly in our culture to our children, the future leaders, about what they think is important. May we always be speaking the truth with clarity and grace to our children and living it out to them in a world that screams for their attention.
What graduation or commencement speeches do you cherish?