There has recently been something of a flutter about the withdrawal, under pressure, of several scheduled Commencement speakers for various sorts of reasons diffusely related to politics, controversial viewpoints, or associations and activities with which some administrator feels disquieted (or with which the administrator believes that some influential, or prominent, or loud group of alumni or students will feel disquieted). It is difficult to get a sense for any unifying theme of controversy in these pressured withdrawals, but together they reflect the sort of soft and not particularly committed progressive pastiche of disapproval that prevails at many colleges and universities: Condoleezza Rice was part of the Bush Administration; Ayaan Hirsi Ali said critical things about Islam; Christine Lagarde presides over an organization which is felt by some students to be “patriarchal” and unhelpful to the poor.
Incensed finger-waggers have observed that these pressured withdrawals are very damaging to universities, because, after all, universities are claimed to be sites of open and respectful argument where ideas can be challenged and debated freely. What kind of closed-minded places are these universities if they cannot engage respectfully with controversial views and encourage their students to do likewise? What about the free exchange of ideas? What about confronting perspectives different than one’s own–those that are alien or that induce alienation?
This all seems rather silly. First, is it really the case that graduations are moments where the university displays what are claimed to be its intellectual virtues in chief? Does anybody believe that the very tail end of the higher educational experience, right as the students are walking out the door, is the moment to showcase these qualities–a moment where nobody but the Commencement speaker actually gets a chance to express any views? Speeches delivered at Commencements are nearly universally empty, gaseous, platitudinous, and saccharine. That is by design. That is their function. They are the most perfunctory part of the ceremony. The speaker pumps the bellows for a bit while the assembly listens with half an ear; the other ear and a half is preoccupied with much more interesting matters, like wondering whether one is sweating too much, or about a sudden acrid smell. The parents of the graduates pretend to listen while clucking about their dearest ones in the crowd. And then, at long last, it’s on to the reception bar with all deliberate speed.
What the pressured withdrawals might suggest is that many universities really are not places where students learn and exercise the habits of intellectual engagement and exchange in any appreciable degree at all. The Commencement speech is just the last in a long trail of hot air. Indeed, some have suggested that many American universities are simply gargantuan machines dedicated to the cultivation of middle-class tastes and distinctively shallow civic points of view–mills for producing good and voracious consumers with whatever miscellany of attendant politics one needs to get on without incident or complaint. That seems slightly sour, but if it is true, then the graduation speech is of a piece with the rest of the experience.
I’ve made it to some of my own graduations and skipped just as many. I can’t say I ever felt regret about those I skipped. Of the many Commencement addresses I have heard, not a single one I can remember provoked deep intellectual engagement or reflection in me. Maybe I was unlucky with the speakers; certainly they were unlucky with me. Perhaps the problem is that I can’t remember any of them. I do know that the speeches all contained the requisite elements of vaguely Whiggish optimism, indistinct exhortation, and comfortable banality that characterizes much of university life. They were delivered by people with anodyne, milk-and-water backgrounds and views who had reached prominent positions. So it should come as no surprise at all when a university calibrates the selection of its Commencement speaker accordingly.
UPDATE: An interesting, somewhat different, perspective here (though I can’t subscribe to any claims about a university’s “democratic values”)