Graduating from college has become an unceremonious affair. The pomp and circumstance of the ritual taunts graduates; tenured faculty members dole out canned praise and platitudes to make the transition from sleeping until noon every day to debt-saddled underemployment seem like a rite of passage. You are important. You are a big deal. Oh, the places you’ll go! As though it weren’t bad enough to have to listen to some old guy butcher thousands of names, your alma mater adds insult to injury by wasting your tuition dollars one last time on a commencement speaker. Despite the fact that the average (inflation-adjusted) price of a four-year degree has more than tripled in the last forty years, schools — particularly ones you’ve probably never heard of — routinely pay celebrities absurd fees to deliver 15-minute chunks of absolute drivel (some celebs like to say that they donate the fee to charity, and government officials usually speak for free, although the more high-profile they are, the more they cost the school in security measures). Why do schools do this? Perhaps they wish to curry favor with the rich and powerful. Perhaps they think a local news headline mentioning their school in the same breath as a famous person will attract prospective students. Perhaps the tedium of university life simply inures its caretakers to the sensation of boredom. But in any case, we must point out the foolishness of this tradition by highlighting the worst commencement speakers money bought this year.
Let’s start with Bard College at Simon’s Rock, an “early college” located in western Massachusetts (total cost: $65,869 per year). The class of 2017 was treated to a soaring speech by Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca, who was introduced to graduates and their extended families simply as the author of “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” a milquetoast 1,200-word Trump take that inexplicably went viral last December. She began: “After I accepted the invitation to speak to you today, it occurred to me that most commencement speeches are terrible. They really are.” I might interject that all of them are terrible, but so far so good. But her oratory quickly took a downward turn as she described her speechwriting process: “I pored through the archives of the best graduation speeches, reading Aaron Sorkin on failure,” she said. This ominous namedrop foreshadowed the climax of the speech, in which Duca related an anecdote from her appearance on CNN after her thinkpiece went mega-vi. The journalist Carl Bernstein, ensconced in America’s history because he broke the Watergate story and cheated on Nora Ephron, apparently told her in jest before the show that she “didn’t look like a teen” (a funny joke because Duca works at Teen Vogue). Duca was armed with a Sorkinesque response: “Actually, sir, I am an award-winning journalist, who was specifically chosen to be Teen Vogue’s weekend editor on account of a stunning combination of disciplined verification, a compelling voice, and fine-tuned news judgement,” she quoted herself as saying to the unfortunate graduates of Simon’s Rock. However, we must consider that Duca’s speech is actually one of the few worthwhile ones. Rather than extolling the virtues of hard work or telling an inspiring story about overcoming an obstacle, she illustrated the Faustian bargain at the root of all upward mobility: You yearn for success, stumble upon it with a brief op-ed that appears skillful only by the low standards of a teen fashion magazine, appear on CNN, and then it all stops. The TV invites drop off, and then, expectations raised to their natural ceiling, you seethe for months because Woodward and Bernstein refused to show you deference. Desire is never truly fulfilled, just replaced with more desire. Very, very bleak, but the students of Simon’s Rock deserve the truth.
Despite the fact that the price of a four-year degree has more than tripled, schools routinely pay celebrities absurd fees to deliver 15-minute chunks of absolute drivel.
Over on the other side of Massachussetts, the shivering graduates of Harvard University ($72,100 per year) were forced to listen to Facebook founder and inevitable presidential candidate Mark Zuckerberg talk about idealism and innovation for a full 30 minutes while it rained on them. Setting aside the fact that encouraging Ivy League graduates to chase success at all costs is both unnecessary and destructive to society at large, Zuckerberg’s suggestions were hilariously self-serving. Facebook has consistently drawn fire for its unethical data collection policies, and Zuckerberg was brazen about his quest for world domination. “How about curing all diseases and getting people involved by asking volunteers to share their health data, track their health data, and share their genomes?” he asked. Share your DNA with me, the man whose company was fined for violating data protection laws literally last week. “How about modernizing democracy so everyone can vote online?” Ignore that the last election was marred by multiple hacking scandals. Pump that data into my veins. If the TED Talk-lite idealism was too lofty, Zuckerberg also threw in some fun, not-at-all-pandering references: “J.K. Rowling got rejected 12 times before she finally wrote and published Harry Potter. Even Beyoncé had to make hundreds of songs to get ‘Halo.’” First of all, the class of 2017 was 13 when “Halo” came out and would probably be more receptive to a reference to last year’s Lemonade, which was also Beyoncé’s critical and commercial apogee. Second, the critics were wrong and her apogee was the 2004 single “Naughty Girl.” Third, J.K. Rowling sucks.
Encouraging Ivy League graduates to chase success at all costs is both unnecessary and destructive to society at large.
If you were unlucky enough to attend a school staffed by readers of New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens, you and the rest of the captive audience may have been subjected to some “diversity of opinion.” In May, the historically black Bethune-Cookman University ($29,010 per year) in Daytona Beach, Florida invited Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to give their commencement address. This was a monumentally stupid decision for many reasons. In her short time in office, DeVos has already made it more difficult to pay back student loans. DeVos’s previous work privatizing Michigan’s education system was especially disastrous for schools in Detroit. In February, DeVos faced a backlash for describing historically black colleges and universities, which were founded due to segregation, as “pioneers of school choice.” Basically, Betsy DeVos was the worst possible person in the world to give a speech at Bethune-Cookman University. “Empowering students with the opportunity to pursue the best possible education has been my focus for the past three decades,” DeVos had the nerve to tell her audience. Hundreds of students booed and turned their backs on DeVos during the speech, a move that apparently came as a surprise to the college’s president, who threatened to cancel graduation and mail everyone their diplomas. That probably would have been better for everyone.
Notre Dame University ($69,395 per year) rewarded its students for their hard work by flying in a widely loathed moron at their expense. Earlier this month, the administration forced more than 2,000 graduates and their families to sit through a speech given by Mike Pence. Students were understandably upset by this, given Pence’s well-documented bigotry and the fact that he calls his wife “mother.” An excerpt from his address: “...far too many campuses across America have become characterized by speech codes, safe zones, tone policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness — all of which amounts to nothing less than suppression of the freedom of speech.” Really groundbreaking stuff, especially from someone who just finished stumping for a House candidate who assaults reporters. Rather than sit through a rehash of generic conservative student-baiting designed to insult them during a celebration, a critical mass of students walked out on Pence’s speech. The conservative press was apoplectic — an incensed Townhall column referred to them as “safe space-seeking crybabies so insulated from reality that the very existence of contrary worldviews causes them to need new underpants.” The National Review pointed out that the walkout was “incredibly disrespectful to Pence’s office.” No shit. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria had this to say: “American universities seem committed to every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity. Conservative voices and views are being silenced entirely.” The first assumption here is that college graduates in Indiana are unfamiliar with the views of a man who represented their state for 17 years. The second is that a commencement speech, particularly one by a sitting vice president, would contain anything “intellectual.” In this view, only students are capable of disrespect, not the administration that used the students’ money to hire a speaker unpopular with their demographic, and certainly not the speaker who used the opportunity to regurgitate a column about safe spaces he read on the plane over from D.C.
Notre Dame University rewarded its students for their hard work by flying in a widely loathed moron at their expense.
It’s hard to say if there’s ever been a good commencement speaker. There was that one speech David Foster Wallace did that was okay, but most people only encountered it as a transcript published in the wake of his 2008 suicide, which made it significantly less inspiring. Some schools are willing to poke fun at the stuffy ceremony by way of a comedic speaker, as Wellesley College did when they brought in Hillary Clinton to talk about Pizzagate and reaching across the aisle. But, as the power differential between students and the university-administrative complex grows wider, the powers that be have less incentive than ever to make the educational experience worthwhile. During graduation, when all the money has already changed hands, that incentive disappears entirely. And so, in the hot sun or in the pouring rain, the masses get to listen to some monstrous plutocrat wish them the best of luck navigating the far-right hellscape they helped create. Maybe they get to hear Mark Zuckerberg kick off his 2020 presidential campaign with patronizing lines about Harry Potter and Beyoncé. Maybe, if they’re lucky, they get a “funny” speaker, one who gets it, one who slips in some jabs at Drumpf in between listing his IMDb credits, one who pisses off their racist relatives who drove two hours to get there and gives them a reason to talk about Sharia law at the afterparty. Congratulations! You deserve it.