Housekeeping / Graduation Speakers
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Tomorrow is Wheaton's graduation, one of the most beautiful ceremonies in academia, I think. It starts out with the students lining the path to where the ceremonies are held (a hollow in the center of campus called the Dimple). Faculty process through the students, and they clap for us. At the end of the ceremonies, we reverse things, and the faculty lines up on the path and the students process between us. We clap for them. It's very simple, but very powerful. I love ritual anyway, but so many of my own graduations felt like empty ritual. Wheaton's isn't, because it's so personal. I know a big chunk of the senior class by name, and so I'll be cheering for a lot of different students as they get their degrees. And as they process out many of them will reach over to shake hands with or hug particular professors. It really illustrates the way that the faculty and students here feel like we've made a difference in each other's lives.
So the deep emotional content of the ceremony is the exact opposite of the ersatz profundity of the graduation speakers. We are scheduled to have Mary Robinson, and I've already been warned to bring a good book under my robe (and I will). I can't critique her yet, but I thought it might be funny to discuss some of the previous speakers we've had:
Of all people, Robert Reich, whom I just have never been able to stand when I've seen him on television, read his OpEds, etc., was the best of the speakers we've had. To my enormous surprise, he made the whole speach about the students, not about himself. He was funny, he teased them a little, made excellent jokes, and was genuinely warm. I couldn't believe it.
David McCullough, author of those gigantic John Adams books. He dug into his database and found a connection between an Adams descendant and Wheaton. She was actually in attendence, to his surprise, since she was 94 years old or so, and he interrupted his speach to lead the crowd in applause for her. He also made the speech about the students and encouraged and applauded them sincerely. Classy guy.
David Whittaker (sp?), Newsweek editor and son of retired professor. Nice guy. Knew the campus and the culture; told stories. Students loved him.
Director of the Getty Museum (sorry, can't remember name). Short and sweet, funny, personable, didn't take himself too seriously.
Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist. I remember turning to one of my friends in the faculty and saying "I can't believe any educated human being could give a speech this shallow." His deep advice: "turn off your cellphone and your Blackberry." Wow. I mean, he had nothing to say, and now that I've heard him speak, I can never take any of his NYT stuff seriously again because, while he may have travelled the world, etc., he just spoke in one cliche after another. Ugh.
The historian from last year, whose name I'll update in here when I find it, who went on some kind of whacko, super-extreme, leftist rant. "You are graduating into the worst economy since the Great Depression." Huh? Not only a horrible thing to say to graduating seniors, but also a lie (unemployment rate was, what, 6.1% last year; I'm no economist or historian, but I think the Great Depression's was just a tad bit higher). The faculty kept clapping and clapping and giving standing ovations, etc., for what was like something you'd read on Democratic Underground. Again, I am not exactly a conservative (though I'm much less partisan -- I hate both parties -- than my colleagues), and I know that my colleagues say lots of stupid stuff about politics in the faculty dining room, but this guy was talking in front of students. And it seemed like he believed all of what he was saying. Somebody needed to adjust his meds.
I was not at Wheaton when Connie Chung gave the most infamous of all graduation speeches, but the legend has it that she told a long, rambling story about having a dream that included her defecating in a dry-cleaning bag. I am not making this up. No one to this day has any explanation, but it's always fun to ask the older faculty to talk about that one speech, which in sheer awfulness has, apparently, never been surpassed.