Friends, family, distinguished guests, faculty, and the class of 2005, it’s that time of year again. Every May and June, we celebrate graduates’ accomplishments, however spectacular, middling, or unspeakable.
At some point in the history of academia, alas, we deemed a diploma, a hearty handshake from the dean, and a hug from mom and dad horribly insufficient compensation for four years of work and tuition payments. Nor would remarks by the class president, the dean, and the college president suffice. To augment such meager offerings, great universities invite our nation’s learned scholars, pretty faces, do-gooders, and idiot savants to offer our young people their wit and wisdom. Maybe the idea is to entertain them one last time.
There are three types of graduation speakers. The truly wise stick to cliches about a bright future, “staying true,” or crossing the threshold of life. Graduates and parents are bored, but the speaker escapes embarrassment-free. The somewhat clever speakers who address the graduates and the topic of graduation joke about cliched graduation speeches, and then give a slight variation of the three or four cliched graduation speeches. In addition to bored, the gathered are a little annoyed. Yet major gaffes are avoided.
The third category is something else altogether. These speakers are Very Important People, Big Names in their respective fields. Since they’re always being fawned over, they assume graduates will find them irresistible too. People so enthralled with themselves share a remarkable blindness to their failed brilliance, especially when given a microphone and captive audience. So, for your edification, here’s a sampling of some of the gifts America’s VIPs have foisted upon this spring’s graduating classes.
We begin with the most newsworthy, Indra Nooyi, the Indian-American president of PepsiCo. After dismissing cliched graduation speeches as “the snooze before the booze,” Ms. Nooyi demonstrated to Columbia Business School graduates last Sunday that a hyphenated heritage lends a person incredible foreign policy expertise. Using her hand as a model of world politics (with each finger representing a leading continent), she said of the United States:
This analogy of the five fingers as the five major continents leaves the long, middle finger for North America, and, in particular, The United States. As the longest of the fingers, it really stands out. The middle finger anchors every function that the hand performs and is the key to all of the fingers working together efficiently and effectively. This is a really good thing, and has given the U.S. a leg-up in global business since the end of World War I.
However, if used inappropriately — just like the U.S. itself — the middle finger can convey a negative message and get us in trouble. You know what I’m talking about. In fact, I suspect you’re hoping that I’ll demonstrate what I mean. And trust me, I’m not looking for volunteers to model.
Discretion being the better part of valor… I think I’ll pass.
How generous and kind. Let’s all raise our Cokes to her.
John McCain, the maverick senator from television, contributed a similar if more tactful analysis last weekend, telling the budding minds at the University of Arizona that the United States must make a show of wringing its hands if it is to be loved abroad:
But however certain we may be about our own motives, the impressions of people abroad are the ones that count. Should they sense a truly imperial impulse, they will speed their efforts to limit America’s reach. But should they detect a truly humanitarian motive behind American action, they are much more likely to welcome a powerful United States, rather than oppose it. Our moral standing is directly tied to our ability to maintain America’s preeminent leadership in the world.
For outlandish worldliness and wit, you had to be in Philadelphia Monday, where U.N. Papa Doc Kofi Annan rocked them at the University of Pennsylvania:
I know you are all looking at me and thinking: “There’s no way he’s going to be as good as Bono!” And you’re right: the lead singer of U2 is a hard act to follow.
Annan rode roughshod over speechwriters to come up with this account of the U.N.’s recent performance:
The United Nations is an idea, too. It is not just a building, or a piece of international machinery.
Just what I was thinking over breakfast this morning.
We look then to my alma mater, Providence College, and its honored guest, the recently beached anchor Tom Brokaw. Also speaking last Sunday, Brokaw delivered the “dream the impossible dream” speech and exhorted graduates to stand firmly for wishy-washy politics. The greatest challenge facing this generation, however, is caring for Mother Earth. Everyone bow your heads, now:
It will do us little good to export democracy and economic opportunity, to use our military power wisely and efficiently, to nurture tolerance and cross-cultural appreciation if we end up on a dead planet. … In my generation we have been witness to the power of awareness, of an environmental consciousness and the modest triumphs of renewal but we continue to lose ground, clean water, creatures large and small, at an alarming rate.
Apropos of creatures and their caretakers, Jane Goodall screeched like a chimpanzee at three institutions in the last week, Douglass College and Rutgers University in New Jersey, and Syracuse University. At Syracuse Sunday, Goodall in fact sounded less coherent than any of her wards would have:
And set against the darkness, there is this brightness, these shining lights that you carry as you move out. Let them light the darkness. Light other lights with them. You know the saying “One candle can light a hundred more without dimming, but making the world bright.” Take your light and do that.
No matter how worldly, concerned, or cogent this year’s speakers have been, none could top pseudo-anchor Jon Stewart’s talk last year to the College of William and Mary. Clad in a T-shirt, Stewart, class of 1984, presented his expert news summary to graduates of the College of William and Mary:
I don’t know if you’ve been following the news lately, but it just kinda got away from us. Somewhere between the gold rush of easy Internet profits and an arrogant sense of endless empire, we heard kind of a pinging noise, and uh, then the damn thing just died on us. So I apologize.
But his real gem drew from his own life experience, couched in mastery of the English language: “Love what you do. Get good at it. Competence is a rare commodity in this day and age. And let the chips fall where they may.”
Will other speakers ever get so good at it?