It’s the season for graduation speeches, and let’s be honest, most of them aren’t very good. They tend to be very banal and cliched. So let’s begin this post with a strong candidate for best graduation speech ever. I am referring to Woody Allen’s speech:
More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
I speak, by the way, not with any sense of futility, but with a panicky conviction of the absolute meaninglessness of existence which could easily be misinterpreted as pessimism.
It is not. It is merely a healthy concern for the predicament of modern man. (Modern man is here defined as any person born after Nietzsche’s edict that “God is dead,” but before the hit recording “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”) This “predicament” can be stated one of two ways, though certain linguistic philosophers prefer to reduce it to a mathematical equation where it can be easily solved and even carried around in the wallet.
Put in its simplest form, the problem is: How is it possible to find meaning in a finite world given my waist and shirt size?
This is a very difficult question when we realize that science has failed us. True, it has conquered many diseases, broken the genetic code, and even placed human beings on the Moon, and yet when a man of eighty is in a room with two eighteen-year-old cocktail waitresses nothing happens. Because the real problems never change.
After all, can the human soul be glimpsed through a microscope? Maybe–but you’d definitely need one of those very good ones with two eyepieces. We know that the most advanced computer in the world does not have a brain as sophisticated as that of an ant. True, we could say that of any of our relatives but we only have to put up with them at weddings or special occasions.
It goes on from there. Sadly, this speech was never actually delivered to a graduating class.
Of course, the occasion for these musings is the fact that I delivered the graduation speech at the College of Science and Math ceremony here at JMU. Click here if you want to see what I said. It took me quite a while, and many drafts, to really nail it down. The problem is that the whole project is a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, you have a large and diverse audience who is there to celebrate a rite of passage with their children (or nieces or nephews or siblings or whatever). They did not come to hear a polemic, or to be harangued for their political or religious views, and I think it would have been inappropriate to deliver such a thing. On the other hand, you don’t want to be completely banal and boring. When given such a great platform you want to say something. There are other balancing acts to perform. It’s good to be funny, but you don’t want to be frivolous. You also want to be serious, but it’s easy to overdo that.
Others will have to judge whether I was successful. Most of the speech is about the virtues of a liberal arts education, but I think I also managed to hit some of my favorite themes. Hostility toward creationism, skepticism of religion, anger at the politicization of science, that sort of thing. If I achieved what I was going for, I made my points without really beating people over the head with them.
Of course, I’d like to think my delivery added something that cannot be gleaned from seeing the words on the page. If the reviews of the people who were there are any indication, then things could not possibly have gone better. I was completely inundated after the ceremony with people congratulating me for giving such a great speech. There was always someone talking to me or waiting to talk to me, to the point where I had trouble breaking away long enough to say goodbye to some of the students who had me for multiple classes. Absolutely no one had a single critical thing to say. The assistant dean of my college even told me, as I sat down after the speech, that she thought it was the best graduation speech she’d ever heard. Several people congratulated me, and then told me they hoped there was no blowback from what I said. Someone from facilities management told me that he wished he had had math teachers like me when he was in school.
There were two especially interesting commenters. One was a Catholic priest, there to see his niece graduate. He was all praise, which was nice. The other one was a couple who told me how much they liked the speech. While we were talking, their daughter, the graduate, came over. She was not a student I knew. While we were chatting, I asked her what was next for her. She answered, “I’ll be studying pediatrics at Liberty University.” (For those not in the know, that’s the fundamentalist Christian school founded by Jerry Falwell.) I smiled and replied that she might get a different perspective there on some of the issues I discussed.
Of course, I’ve been to a lot of graduations at this point and I’ve heard a lot of speeches. One of the best I’ve heard, surprisingly, came from George Allen. He’s a former Republican senator from Virginia, and also a former governor of Virginia. Definitely not someone I would normally find amusing. The speech itself was a solid but not especially creative missive about the importance of technology and innovation. There was almost nothing overtly political about it. The part that made it so memorable came at the beginning. He was in the middle of a reelection campaign for the Senate. He opened his speech with some cheerleading for JMU, during which he mentioned all the money he had directed our way during his political career. Eventually he said something like, “And if you thought I was a big JMU booster before, you just wait until I get back to the Senate because my daughter is going to be a freshman here next fall!” I was about ready to vote for him after that.
Then he had his famous macaca moment, and he ended up losing the election.
One of the worst speeches was when one of George W. Bush’s treasury secretaries spoke. He told the graduates they were lucky to be graduating while Bush was President, since he gave everyone a big tax cut and that was going to cause the economy to boom. Asshole.
I thought this year’s speaker at our big, university-wide ceremony was quite good. He was the official historian for the House of Representatives, and he just happens to be a JMU grad. He mostly told a lot of anecdotes from the history of the House, and then talked about the dangers of political polarization.
Now, there have been at least two big graduation speaker controversies recently. Rutgers University invited Condoleeza Rice to speak. After some loud protests by both students and faculty, Rice pulled out, apparently with the school’s blessing. Let’s not have too many tears for her, since as I understand it she will still be receiving her thirty-five thousand dollar speaking fee. That said, though, it’s deplorable that the Rutgers community reacted in the way that it did. I would have been nonplussed by the invitation, just as I have been nonplussed by the various right-wingers I’ve heard speak over the years. But can anyone seriously deny that someone with her resume is an appropriate speaker? Furthermore, it does more harm than good to start acting like a bunch of savages. Far better just to let her speak and be done with it. I sympathize completely with the substance of the criticisms made against Rice, but that does not justify the way the Rutgers community reacted.
On the other hand, the article I linked to suggests that the university officials who first made the invitation felt blindsided by the hostile response. If that’s true, then they’re idiots. How could you not think that one of the main architects of the Iraq war, and specifically of our torture policy, would be controversial? That’s some mighty high-level obliviousness.
But it pales in comparison to what happened at Brandeis University. They invited Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak at their graduation. Then they rescinded that invitation after various folks, especially at CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations). Now, CAIR is basically just a bunch of thugs who brand any criticism of Islam as “Islamophobic,” so caving to them is a pretty bad move for any university. But how on earth could Brandeis have invited her in the first place without knowing of some of her more incendiary criticisms of Islam? Brandeis has completely disgraced itself in this whole debacle. First they invited her without apparently doing any homework at all. Then they caved to the slightest criticism, thereby making themselves look buffoonish and cowardly.
That said, Ali posted the remarks she would have made at Brandeis, and even while I agree with everything she says, I do have a problem with one part of it:
The connection between violence, particularly violence against women, and Islam is too clear to be ignored. We do no favors to students, faculty, nonbelievers and people of faith when we shut our eyes to this link, when we excuse rather than reflect.
So I ask: Is the concept of holy war compatible with our ideal of religious toleration? Is it blasphemy—punishable by death—to question the applicability of certain seventh-century doctrines to our own era? Both Christianity and Judaism have had their eras of reform. I would argue that the time has come for a Muslim Reformation.
This brings me full-circle, since it relates to something I said at the start of the post. For me, singling out one religion for condemnation in a graduation speech crosses a line. Criticizing specific ideas, or specific actions taken by specific countries is one thing, but simply dumping on Islam in general is not appropriate. The Muslim parents in the audience do not deserve to be harangued when they are celebrating a milestone with their kids.
So there you go. I’ve put the gown away until next year.