Why do we still have commencement speakers?
It is a question that is certainly worth asking as we approach the end of college graduation season, in the wake of the recent “scandals” involving several important figures who, for some reason, needed to speak to college graduates as part of the ritual known as commencement. A few figures were denied a chance to speak to speak at one college or another, others withdrew voluntarily. Most were being given useless honorary doctorates.
The reasons vary for each speaker’s removal, all of which skirt the real problem: The idea of a commencement speaker itself. There has never been a more useless source of bloat in any sort of event in recent times than that of some possibly self-important figure, speaking to college graduates who are already sick of the ceremony about… something. Whatever the traditional intent of the commencement speech, that intent is long gone, replaced with a scattershot approach of “talking about what it’s like to be an adult.” Of course, should not these graduates already have at least a vague sense that already, even in the coddled walls of the campus? Or has helicopter parenting gotten that bad?
As it stands, almost all commencement speakers tend to not to be memorable. If I were to ask you if you remember your commencement speaker, and/or that person’s speech, could you say with a straight face that yes, you do remember them? I doubt it. There are good reasons for that. For one, the speeches tend to be long affairs, probably the longest aspect of a commencement ceremony outside of the actual handing of the diplomas to graduates. One would be better off giving a lesson on Russian history, for it would have the same effect.
Secondly, I do not recall ever hearing a student actually being excited for their commencement speaker beforehand (with some exceptions), let alone be amazed at their speech during commencement. Most of the speakers, all picked by administrators and not students, tend not to be picked for being able to talk to large groups of people or even representing the school in some way. For example, here is Holly Gordon, a former news reporter who now runs a feel-good non-profit that educates girls in third-world countries, speaking to the graduates of Mills College last year:
In addition to the fact that the content of the speech was mostly focused on herself and not her audience, the extraordinary amount of public speaking cliches Ms. Gordon fell back on makes her speech ripe for riffing or heckling. I wish this were an exception, but talking to college graduates, the consensus is that Ms. Gordon represents the general rule regarding commencement speakers.
Who truly benefits from these speakers? Certainly not the graduates, or their friends and family. They have to sit around for 30 minutes listening to someone talk about themselves and/or their agenda. More likely, the school administration benefits either from gaining a reliable source of endowment funding by handing an honorary doctorate, the rich man’s equivalent of vanity license plates, to a rich donor, or from the PR/reputation boost that will make them enticing to prospective students from getting someone Famous to speak at their school. The speaker gets a big ego boost, taking their vanity plates with them. The alumni foundations, filled with the elite donors who need to feel self-righteous and important, get some social self-gratification.
Perhaps, now that students are going to complain about a speaker’s views or history (which just seems a waste of energy), it is high time to rid the practice outright. It will save the administration a bit of a headache, if not a bit of money, and it will reduce the amount of time wasted at commencement. Given that most college graduates are irresponsible enough for dropping 5-to-6 figures in loans to go to college these days, it is not like they are going to listen to whatever advice the speaker provides.