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The Arrogance Of Commencement Speakers

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I have spoken at enough commencements to know that rule one is don’t confuse your role as speaker with the celebration of the accomplishments of the graduates.

Don’t step on the story, in other words, and don’t impose yourself or your political views on the audience. They are the honorees, and they are a diverse group.

The cost of losing sight of this is fully explained in an e-mail I received last night:

Hi Hugh, I sent this as a letter to the editor for the Honolulu Advertiser hoping to get at least a favorable portion published…

I attended my wife’s graduation ceremony this Sunday from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. As a full-time, active duty officer in the U.S. military, it was a proud moment for her. I sat next to her Dad, who was glowing with pride at how his little girl had set off on her own from a little farm in Colorado to achieve his equal in the realm of academics: a Master’s degree.[# More #]

We sat in awe of the sheer numbers of graduates in their ceremonial gowns, in wonderment and respect for their achievements. Unfortunately, this celebration was curtailed somewhat with disappointment at a portion of the commencement address given by Dr. Rita Colwell, Ph. D., a distinguished University Professor and former Director of the National Science Foundation. Much of her address was good-natured and inspirational, but she just couldn’t help herself and broke dinner table etiquette, taking a stab at the Iraq war by unmistakably suggesting a parallel to the Vietnam War, and hinting at the grand tradition of students acting out in opposition to war.

My wife sat next to two classmates; one is a female active duty Army officer whose work directly supports Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan); the other, whose husband is serving on his second deployment to Iraq as a combat infantry officer, is considerably active in support networks for spouses of deployed soldiers and sailors, never knowing what the next phone call may bring. They sat aghast as in one breath, Dr. Colwell incredulously presumed the outcome of the conflict, stating that it “may well turn out to be a tragic mistake”; and in the next breath feigned praise for the service men and women, stating that no matter what one may think of the Iraq conflict, we must honor their service. (One can only deduce from this statement that these poor lemmings, nobly cascading over the falls in support of this tragic mistake, are merely answering the call of duty and therefore cannot be held at fault.)

Statements such as these, however subtly suggested, are so utterly misplaced and irrelevant to the accomplishments of the students. They serve only to insult the troops, thereby dishonoring their commitment, and demonstrate the obvious disdain in academia for the successes and failures of the current administration and those in its employ. What often goes unrecognized by persons who make these passing remarks, however well-intentioned or obsequious they may be, is that these soldiers and sailors, the very students sitting in attendance, have worked hard in service to their country’s missions, and cannot help but be offended.

Dr. Colwell, who no doubt has accomplished a great many things in academia as well as public service, rightly asserted in her address the tragedy of 17 million people worldwide who succumb each year to the spread of infectious disease. She spoke to the effectiveness of simple ideas, which can often solve problems which may at first glance, appear too complex to resolve. Yet in all of her obvious intellect, experience, and achievement, the Iraq war apparently equates to a tragedy earning the same honorable mention as the 17 million deaths to disease, despite the opportunity for freedom from dictatorship and oppression afforded to millions of Iraqi citizens through our troops’ efforts, and the overwhelmingly disproportionate casualty comparison. One can only assume that in the arena of international relations and conflict resolution, these same simple solutions are not valid when they do not meet with the approval and input of the superior intellect of academia.

Not to be outdone was University President David McClain, who eulogized on the responsibilities of those with higher degrees, now presumably part of an elite crowd. He used the analogy that those with advanced degrees are similar to the mountain dwelling Hawaiian ancestors, whose smoke signaled the production of taro for beach dwellers who relied upon them for sustenance. While well-intentioned, this leftist argument only reinforces the elitist views of university academia, who seem to believe that superior education translates into superiority per se, and they must therefore confer upon those less educated, the generosity of their wisdom and opulent intellect.

The reality is that the ‘beach dwellers’ of today are the engines of society, and the role of those with higher education is to enable and serve the masses with their ideas and ingenuity, and become an integral and productive member of society, not some intellectual mountain dweller or ivy tower occupant blowing smoke from on high. (Application of suggested pun is left to the reader.)

After enduring 2 years of the predominantly left-leaning opinions of their classmates and educators, replete with frothing anti-Bush, anti-Iraq war exasperation and fury, these three women, like the men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, prevailed nevertheless, and accomplished what they set out to do. What should have been a celebration on Sunday for my wife and her two friends ended up leaving a bitter taste in their mouths.

And so, since Dr. Colwell brought the issue to the table, on their behalf I will gladly inform those in attendance what it is that she and her two classmates, (and presumably there are more of them of the same mind), think of the Iraq conflict by speaking the heretofore unspeakable: “If you really want to honor the troops and sailors in their mission, place your personality dislikes to the side and repeat after me this very simple idea: God Bless our President, and God Bless the honorable mission of our troops in Iraq!”

Congratulations Graduates – all of you – and Good Luck!

UPDATE: Commencement lunacy extends from HA to Maine. Here’s an article on the odd ramblings of Doug Hall at the University of Maine commencment, and another as-yet-unpublsihed letter-to-the-editor forwarded to me via e-mail on the occasion:

To the Editor:

I’m writing about the “eccentric” (to use your term) speech given at the University of Maine commencement by Mr. Doug Hall. Speaking “barefoot beneath his black academic gown”, Mr. Hall shared, among other things, the following pearls of wisdom:

  • The American health care industry has developed Botox, Viagra, and gastric bypass surgery rather than improving people’s actual health
  • The students should lead a revolution against the failed policies of their parents’ generation (“a new American revolution…..against conformity”)
  • The lack of a vaccine to prevent AIDS is an American failure.

I was interested to see if the article, or any rational observer, would comment on:

  • How many grandparents (and even great-grandparents) of students were in attendance as a testimony to the relative health and longevity of the current American populace
  • The reaction to the speech of the parents present, whose “policies” Hall advocated overthrowing, and what “policies” these were
  • The level of funding of AIDS research in America per patient, as compared to cancer and heart disease, and how many AIDS patients are surviving and leading relatively normal lives today thanks to medical advances
  • If, walking around barefoot, Hall remained uninjured throughout the event, or if instead this brilliant academic honoree stepped on a tack, nail, or something, and incurred some needless societal health care cost.

I left disappointed-no such additional context was presented. Isn’t a part of education (and journalism) asking questions and learning both sides of issues?

Jeff Oxman
Southwest Harbor


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