RIVERSIDE — All 99 members of the graduating class assembled in the gymnasium of Batavia High School 25 years ago, a then-rural Illinois campus outside Chicago. Seniors and their parents, together with the school board and teachers, awaited the valedictory address. A student rose to speak, nervous yet proud of what he had to say.
Lacking a rhetorical style of his own, he had prepared to speak in imitation of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, remembering J.F.K.'s campaign stop in Batavia when the senior was a sophomore. Jabbing the air with his hand, the valedictorian with a crew cut began, "A man's philosophy is his way of life, as determined by his patterns of thinking."
That's a statement that says less than meets the ear--also the sort of thing you expect to hear at commencement ceremonies. It was received with considerable enthusiasm from the graduating seniors, albeit with some embarrassment from the largely respectable, Republican adult audience. Sometimes, it's not what you say that matters, but how you say it.
It's a different America we live in now, and 1987 commencement exercises are different too.
In 1962 the Great Speech had its place embedded in our way of life, to commemorate Great Moments. These were occasions to be listened to. Commencement exercises afforded a special opportunity for advice and inspiration as students left their alma maters, with the distinguished speakers there to show the way.
Wisdom was at a premium and people attended a commencement exercise to savor the sound of it, particularly those parents who had not had the opportunity to finish high school or college because of the Great Depression or World War II. It was a proud moment to see their children graduate and to hear something of the learning their children had received, if only in a single speech.
Surely many speakers in those days hoped that perhaps some pregnant phrase might, years later, prove profound to someone in need of it. So Douglas Knight, then president of Lawrence College, said that a liberal-arts education should leave students between two worlds, one now beneath them and the other one above that they would be forever reaching for, Socrates unsatisfied.
Socrates may be unsatisfied, but that's a sentiment less commonly expressed today. Some campuses have altogether abandoned the spiritual address, in favor of remarks delivered by honorary degree recipients, as at Occidental College, celebrating its centennial by giving honorary degrees to distinguished alumni, who will return the favor with their own abbreviated observations. Some campuses are even dispensing with commemorative remarks entirely, as at UCLA, where there is no official commencement speaker whatsoever or whomsoever.
Nor is there one at Harvard or at Yale, although this is something of a technicality, since immediately following the Harvard commencement exercises, the alumni have their day, this year to listen to President Richard von Weizsacker of West Germany, while Yale seniors have their invited speaker on Class Day, the day before commencement.
The opportunity for a Great Speech still presents itself to politicians, even if fewer campuses show interest. At Stanford, this year's commencement speaker will be the recently retired Speaker of the House, Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., while the University of California at Riverside has Shirley Chisholm, former congresswoman and presidential candidate.
Politicians are people in the news and commencement seems fabricated for them, but now that the medium has become the message, people in the news are the news reporters themselves; many of them now mount the platform to address commencement exercises instead of just reporting on them. Sometimes, it isn't the substance of the speech that matters as much as the celebrity of the speaker. Mike Wallace spoke on Saturday at the University of Michigan and Ted Koppel will talk at Duke. One wonders whether Koppel will bring someone along to interview or whether Wallace was on the defensive, what with students at Michigan having protested his appearance.
Yale's seniors selected Strobe Talbott ('71) of Time magazine and once on the staff of the Yale Daily News. Southern Methodist University, which has itself been prominent in the news lately, selected Leonard Silk of the New York Times, who is not a sports reporter.
Some campus wags call it being mortar-bored and bring in outside politicians or messengers from the media to reveal a preference for what's outside the ivy-covered walls, suggesting disillusionment with what's within. Once again the University of Chicago proves exceptional as it continues a tradition of selecting a member of its own faculty to address commencement.