Is the commencement speech a dying art? It’s certainly thriving as a form of entertainment. You can find a short list of “the 20 schools with the coolest graduation speakers of 2015” on the website Total Sorority Move. (Barack Obama came in second, behind Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” and ahead of Matthew McConaughey.)
National Public Radio has a database of speeches going back to 1774, searchable by theme (“Inner voice,” “Embrace failure”), and YouTube has collected the 10 most-viewed in its 10-year history (including Oprah Winfrey and Meryl Streep).
All this is addictive, and some speakers are happy to play along, mixing the formula of admonition and encouragement with an added dose of snark. “There it is, out there, the grand and appalling human reality, its elation, its despondency, its danger, its dentistry,” Salman Rushdie told Emory University seniors this month.
The surprise is that some commencement speeches live on as instances of great public oratory. Consider two classics from 2005. At Stanford, Steve Jobs reminisced about a period when he was a “very public failure” then discussed his cancer. “Death is the destination we all share,” he told an audience that may have expected to hear about a life of brilliant accomplishment rather than a tour of its darkest zones.
At Kenyon College, novelist David Foster Wallace, drawing on the loneliness at the core of his own troubled being, pleaded listeners to reject the fixation on personal growth – “the freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.”
What’s striking, 10 years later, is how uninhibited Jobs and Wallace were in this most public of settings. We might assume that in an age of “oversharing,” today’s speakers would feel even freer. But the opposite is true. Now there’s an unspoken rule against offending someone (or anyone at all) as well as a fear of brushing up against the invisible fence of appropriateness.
A year ago, for example, three formidable public figures – IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali – withdrew from scheduled graduation speeches after protests from students and faculty. In his Harvard commencement address last year, Michael Bloomberg, the founder of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, condemned the academic culture responsible for those cancellations, a theme Rushdie echoed at Emory.
Not that such protests against college speakers are new. Forty years ago, 140 graduating Stanford seniors walked out on Daniel Patrick Moynihan, objecting to his views on poverty and race – or, rather, “views I was falsely accused of holding,” he told the university’s president.
But at least Moynihan was encouraged to speak in 1975. Now, even a fair hearing is interpreted by some as “micro-aggression.”
Speakers in 1975 felt free to challenge audiences in a way they rarely do now. Forty years is a lot, but not so many. And much about the 1970s would seem familiar to us. Graduates faced an uncertain economy. A front-page New York Times story reported that some people were questioning the value of a college degree unless it was in “technical fields, especially in computer systems” or “other specialized, career- oriented education that employers ask of job applicants.”
American campuses were more fraught with conflict than they have been since. The class of 1975 arrived in 1971, immediately after tense and occasionally militant clashes on real-world issues such as war, racial justice and women’s equality.
None of this inhibited Joan Didion from offering her own sharp assessment of American youth in her 1975 address at the University of California at Riverside. It had charming reminiscences of her California girlhood and college days, but they were merely the warm-up to her critique of an entire generation and its refusal to come to grips with complex truths.
“We all distort what we see,” said Didion, then 40. “We all have to struggle to see what’s really going on.” So she invited her audience to look through her eyes at a generation still in thrall to “that darkling plain we call the 60’s. Which seems, when we look back on it, a decade in which everyone lived in an entirely imagined world; when everybody operated from an idea and all the ideas got polarized and cheapened.”
At the time, the 1960s had seemed a high point of revelation and liberation. “Everything was understood to have some moral freight, some meaning beyond itself. And in fact, nothing did.” Americans had collectively lost the ability to think and judge. “The whole country was like a cargo cult.”
In consequence, “nothing meant what it was supposed to mean.” Words themselves had been corrupted. “Black Panthers and police talked the same way. Pentecostals and Maoists talked the same way.”
Worse still were the tiny acts of preening virtue. “Planting a tree can be a useful and pleasant thing to do,” Didion acknowledged but added, in a rebuke that could have been aimed at the millennials of our own moment: “Planting a tree is not a way of life. Planting a tree as a philosophical mode is just not good enough.”
Didion had first-hand experience of the counterculture she excoriated that day, having written incisive, first-hand journalism on Haight-Ashbury, on a Los Angeles recording session with Jim Morrison and the Doors, on the Black Panthers in Oakland.
Those experiences gave her the authority and confidence to criticize what she saw happening around her. And she assumed her audience would take her, and themselves, seriously enough to pay attention. “You may not be afflicted with my misapprehensions, and I may not be with afflicted with yours,” she said. “But none of us starts 'tabula rasa.'"
Didion wasn’t the only critic of the new generation who spoke presciently that commencement season. Brandeis’s ceremony included remarks by an exceptionally promising graduating senior, Michael J. Sande, who was openly nostalgic for the stirring protests and rebellions of the 1960s he had missed.
“Politics for them was at once a source of identity, community and virtue,” Sandel said. “For us, the world is a more complicated place, where choice is governed by trade-offs rather than moral absolutes. Although our view may be more sophisticated, it is also less satisfying.”
The bleak economy imposed new pressures. “Our attention has shifted from the shortage of good in the world to the shortage of goods,” Sandel said, “but even if we succeed in solving our economic problems, the best we can hope for is more groceries, not more meaning.” It was important work, but grubbily materialistic.
The changes Sandel described were taking place elsewhere too, at the pinnacle of American intellectual and political life, as the ideals of collective action fell out of favor and were displaced by free-market principles, centered on the individual, rather than the community.
The mid-1970s was the starting point of “an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture,” historian Daniel T. Rodgers wrote. “History gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance and desire.”
It made sense, then, that the most influential thinker in this new movement should give a 1975 address. Economist Milton Friedman, at the University of New Hampshire, spoke on “the fragility of freedom” and America at a crossroads.
“One road is toward the destruction of freedom and liberty and the substitution of authoritarian government in one form or another,” said Friedman, then 63. This fate could be averted, but the public must “call a halt to the growth and expansion in the size of government.”
Capitalist ideas might not seem inspiring until you examined them closely. “You tend to think of the economic market as concerned with the mundane, material things such as producing bread or cheese, or automobiles or houses,” Friedman said in a version of his lecture given at Brigham Young University that fall. In fact, “the private market, the economic market, is also the most effective means for doing good.”
He pointed out how many of the charitable advances so crucial to American progress began in the industrial era of the 19th century, including the spread of public universities, libraries and hospitals.
These three speakers had very little in common. Friedman would win the Nobel Prize in economics the next year. Didion was on the verge of literary celebrity. Sandel became a Rhodes scholar and a distinguished political philosopher at Harvard. Yet their separate quarrels with their moment lived on into our own.
Can we expect as much from commencement speakers today? The truth is, political correctness is just one symptom of a broader malady. Argument itself has all but disappeared from public “conversation.” The premium is on the simulacra of argument – on opinions and points of view, on the flow of facts and data.
Argument is something different. It is the sustained statement of a case, an experiment in extended thought – just the sort of thing we expect the young to be exposed to in college. A commencement speech ought to be the ideal moment for an accomplished grownup to show students, and their parents and teachers, how it’s done in the “real world,” to communicate the value of getting beyond the pieties of uplift and personal journeys.
“I’m not going to give you the usual Commencement line about how you stand on the brink of something,” Joan Didion told her audience in 1975. “We all stand on the brink of something every day we get out of bed, and it usually turns out to be a precipice.”
Sam Tanenhaus, the author of “The Death of Conservatism” and “Whittaker Chambers, “ is working on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr.