Look Who’s Talking – if the Audience Allows

May 25, 2014

By Rupert Cornwell at The Independent

Here in the US, this is commencement – or graduation – season and, as a slice of Americana, it can’t be beaten. A couple of days ago, I went to my son’s commencement day at Salisbury University on Maryland’s eastern shore. It was a cross between a baseball game and the Last Night of the Proms, leavened with a touch of Tudor fancy dress and vast quantities of exuberance. Family and friends yelled and hollered as the MC read the names of individual graduates taking the stage to receive their certificate from a college dignitary decked out like a courtier of Henry VIII.

For the proud parent who also happens to be British, the import of the occasion was only enhanced by the strains of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No 1”, aka “Land of Hope and Glory”. Next on the programme, however, was the US national anthem (it ain’t no ballgame without the anthem) and any neo-colonial illusions were instantly dispelled.

Then we had the university president’s speech, extolling the feats of various Salisbury sports teams and making the first of the countless fundraising pitches each student will hear during his or her lifetime: “Someone sitting among you could become a billionaire,” she said, “so don’t forget us.” Fundraising and “The Star-Spangled Banner” – you can’t get more American than that.

But there’s another indispensable element to graduation day and that’s the commencement address. As the word suggests, graduation here is seen less as an ending – the completion of one’s studies – than as a beginning, when the human vessel casts off on to the great ocean of life. The speaker is supposed to dispense nuggets of wisdom about how to survive and prosper and, as a rule, the fancier the speaker the better. The biggest fish of all is the President (Obama usually does one or two a year), but these days celebrities such as Oprah run him close.

And every once in a while, a commencement speech makes genuine news. Back in 1947, at Harvard, then secretary of state George Marshall unveiled the Marshall plan of economic assistance to war-shattered Europe. In 2002, George W Bush set out before the graduating class of West Point a somewhat less popular strategy, the doctrine of “preventive war” used to justify his invasion of Iraq.

A very few others also enter history – as when Steve Jobs spoke at Stanford in 2005. What the founder of Apple had to say was not exactly what the products of one of America’s highest-rated universities were expecting to hear. Jobs himself had dropped out of college: “After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me… And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life.” Jobs’s advice? “Stay hungry and stay foolish.” Hits on YouTube are now nearing 20 million.

Sometimes, of course, news that is expected doesn’t materialise. Take Wake Forest University in North Carolina, which this year had booked Jill Abramson, editor of The New York Times, to deliver its commencement. Then Ms Abramson was stunningly and acrimoniously sacked. She might have cancelled, but she didn’t, inspiring a flock of reporters to follow her to Wake Forest, hoping she’d use the occasion to dish the dirt on America’s most famous newspaper.

In the event, she came across as bloodied and unbowed, but had little striking to say. Alas, that’s par for the course. Big-name speeches are usually as forgettable as State of the Union addresses. You can’t help thinking the students deserve better, especially as they’re carrying an average $25,000 (£15,000) in debt, a sum that can easily be earned by a half-famous speaker for 15 minutes of platitudes.

One way or another, however, commencement addresses create waves every year. The fuss this time hasn’t been over ones that were made, but over ones that weren’t, cancelled because of protest by the intended audience. Such “disinvitations” are nothing new – 100 have occurred in the past five years alone, according to Greg Lukianoff, president of an organisation called Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who tracks these things. But 2014 has brought a bumper crop.

Condoleezza Rice, a former secretary of state, was dropped by Rutgers University amid campus objections to her role in the war in Iraq. A few days later, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, was given the brush-off by all-women Smith College, on the grounds that IMF policies in poor countries were a heartless capitalist ramp. This, declared a student petition that brought about the cancellation, “has led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide”.

The ditching of Ms Lagarde was sad: surely the person who drily noted that a certain Wall Street bank might not have got into trouble in the 2008 financial crisis if it had been called Lehman Sisters, would have had something interesting to say to her female audience? But commencements, too, are succumbing to those American vices of excessive political correctness and the transformation of civic discourse into a doctrinal shouting match.

Universities here, like those everywhere, tend to be liberal places, so it’s not surprising that conservatives such as Ms Rice are liable to get a rougher ride. More striking is the readiness of college administrators to cave in to pressure. So much for the broad halls of academe and the unfettered give and take of ideas.

Salisbury, I’m happy to report, avoided any such fracas. The big speech was no more than “remarks” delivered by a graduating art student. It was brief and charming, not teeming with profound life lessons, but making the simple point that she, like most of her peers, had had a terrific time. Real life, for a day at least, could wait. And no quarrelling, either.