Every spring, news cycles fill with stories of college and university students protesting the selection of Commencement speakers, usually on political or religious grounds. Critics of the protests often respond that demanding withdrawal of a Commencement speaking invitation has the effect of discouraging free and robust speech.
Hmm…perhaps we should simply end the practice of inviting prominent people to speak at Commencements.
When students protest the selection of a Commencement speaker, it’s typically not just about their social or political views. Rather, something about that speaker detracts from a moment that should be for the students and their families. If a speaker has taken a particularly sharp or divisive position, his or her presence may actually spoil the ceremony for those students.
Yes, critics of the protesters raise valid concerns about undermining free speech. However, unlike a campus forum that students may choose to attend, those at a Commencement ceremony are a captive audience. If participating in Commencement is important to them, they have to sit and listen, and there’s no opportunity to respond to the speaker. It’s one-way free speech, at best. If someone is worth bringing to campus to speak, then why not sponsor a genuine academic program around their appearance that allows for give-and-take?
This brings me to another good reason to ditch Commencement speakers: Rather than being controversial, most Commencement speeches are eminently forgettable, a mix of platitudes, applause lines, and personal anecdotes, many of which have been shared time and again on previous occasions. Much hot air is expended in return for so little content. In most cases, why bother?
In sum, I suggest that we skip most of the “name” speakers and return Commencement to the students. Allow them to pick several fellow graduates and maybe even or a professor or two who will keep their remarks short and snappy. Then invite them to walk across the stage as they transform into graduates.
If formal addresses at ceremonial events such as Commencements are to be the norm, then let me suggest two exemplars of the art:
The first is President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, delivered at the dedication of the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania national battlefield cemetery. Justly considered one of the greatest speeches in American history, President Lincoln took but a few minutes to deliver it. (Many are unaware that the featured speaker that day, noted orator Edward Everett, spoke for some two hours, in keeping with expectations for such events back then. Unlike Lincoln’s brief speech, Everett’s oration has been consigned to history’s dustbin.)
I’ve featured the second speech on this blog before, President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 Commencement address at American University in Washington D.C., during which he set out the challenges of maintaining peace in the nuclear age. It masterfully blends substance with doses of wit, while bowing to the University, its graduates, and the deeper values of higher education. Here’s a snippet: