Study in Contrasts

Thursday was "Founders Day" at Union, and there were two major speaking events on campus. The official Founders Day address was given at lunchtime by Rev. Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School. That evening, there was a second talk, not officially associated with Founders Day, by Chuck D, of the rap group Public Enemy. At first glance, that seems like the sort of weird collision of speakers that you can only find on a college campus. The really strange thing, though, was that in an odd way, they both gave the same speech.

Gomes was pretty much everything you expect from a named chair at Harvard: an older gentleman, very dignified, with a faint British accent. He was also a terrifically funny speaker, in a way that only really works if you're a dignified older gentleman with a faint British accent. He opened his talk by saying (paraphrased slightly)

You have invited me here to give a speech. My job is to talk, your job is to listen. Should you find that you are finished with your job before I have finished with mine, please be patient, I will catch up.

He also had an extended riff on Union's signature campus landmark, the Nott Memorial, saying that when he first saw it, he wondered

Was it an Italian baptistery set up in Upstate New York? Was it a remnant of another planet? Was it the top of a some enormous building that lies underground, and stretches for miles in every direction? I approached it both reverently and warily.

He later decided that it was a giant metaphor for a liberal education, (paraphrasing again)

It's large, broad, magnificent to look at, and nobody is quite sure what it's for, and it must be horribly expensive to maintain.

Chuck D spoke later that night, in the Nott Memorial, and was pretty much everything you could expect of the former leader of Public Enemy. He was dressed like a rapper (track suit, baseball cap), and held forth at great length (he spoke for something like three and a half hours) about all sorts of topics related to American pop culture and politics. He was a little more profane than Gomes (just a little), but also terrifically funny. He took some great shots at BET ("The Booty En Thugs network"), MTV, and California politics ("Every time I leave Hollywood, I check into IQ rehab for a week."). His best bit was on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, saying (paraphrased):

You grab Saddam because you can't find Osama? Shit, if you're going to go for conspiracy theories, why not go all the way, and grab Scottie Pippen? He at least looks like Osama-- they're both tall guys with brown skin and long-ass faces.

In contrast to Gomes's impeccably prepared remarks, Chuck D spoke almost entirely off the cuff. He had a stack of notes that he brought up to the podium with him, but he only rarely glanced at them, and sort of wandered from topic to topic with only occasional attempts to stay on topic. This included a very long and rambling (and not entirely coherent) history of how everything in modern American pop culture can be traced back to New Orleans.

Weirdly, though, they both had the same basic point, praising liberal education. Gomes spoke of liberal arts schools as beacons of learning in "barbarous times," and said that he invests great hopes for the future of the country in small colleges. Chuck D offered props to the students for "working to un-dumbassify yourselves," encouraged students to broaden their horizons, and called for a greater emphasis on education in American culture, saying "We need the information in the education to get as much repetition as the entertainment." They took different paths to get there-- Gomes spoke at length about the need for tolerance and civic responsibility, while Chuck D railed against the "thug life" aspect of hip-hop culture, and the "dumbassification" of pop culture-- but in the end, they both stressed the importance of education.

On a cynical sort of level, this probably just shows that whether you're a rapper or a Professor of Christian Morals, it's a good idea to suck up to your audience. Still, it was fascinating to hear the same basic idea pitched in such radically different ways. Sadly, I was probably one of about six people who heard both versions (the students mostly skipped Gomes's talk, the faculty bagged Chuck D), but it was an interesting day of oratory...


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