Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How Not to Give a Commencement Address



The above speech begins as a sort of PC version of a perfectly normal commencement speech: ie., an address consisting mainly of inoffensive bromides. If you scroll to 45, however, you will see it suddenly go terribly wrong.

Here we all are, celebrating the achievements of the last four years and looking forward to the rest of our lives, and this verbal bomb thrower, Prof. Sandra Soto, lobs one into our midst, blasting us into clashing, angry factions. This is the last memory we will have of our college days: some boor choosing our commencement as the venue for a controversial, purely ideological speech. Thanks a lot, whoever invited her!

There is a good reason why commencement speeches are packed with cliches. A wise man once told me that every culture must have some institutions that bring people together, but that in a free society things can only bring us together if they have little or no intellectual content.

Why is baseball important? Who cares which of us is best at hitting a ball with a stick? Baseball is empty! But its emptiness is its point. A horsehide-wrapped ball isn't about anything. That's why we can all agree about it. Sports are empty. Good food is empty. Partying and dancing are empty. The witless antics of the "celebrities" that fill the tabloids are all empty. The law and the constitution are empty frameworks to be filled with whatever actions we choose.

At commencement we gather to celebrate some of the very few things we do have in common: the ideals embodied in the practice of advanced learning itself. To perform this function, a commencement speech has to come as close as it can to intellectual emptiness. In speech, the nearest approach to emptiness is the bromide, the cliche. It consists of ideas that are obviously true, or at least obviously plausible, to everyone.

There certainly is a place for abrasive, offensive political harangues, but it is elsewhere.
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