About a half-century ago, Secretary of State George C. Marshall used his commencement speech at Harvard to announce what came to be known as the “Marshall Plan.” Of course, not every commencement address can be a major policy pronouncement by a leading statesman, but this year’s decision to give that coveted platform to Oprah Winfrey represents a new low for my alma mater.
I say a “new low” because there already have been some lows. The speaker in 2007 was Bill Gates, a perfect man for the job except that his decision to drop out of Harvard without graduating seemingly proves the unimportance of, well, graduating from Harvard. And the choice of J.K. Rowling in 2008 smacked of pandering, though next to Oprah she looks like George Eliot. Now Harvard, often accused of being the world’s most overexposed university, has outdone itself by choosing to honor the world’s most overexposed talk-show host.
A glance at Harvard’s website reveals that, in less trendy years, graduates had to hear from such squares as Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, Raymond Aron, Lionel Trilling, Ralph Ellison, Vaclav Havel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Madeleine Albright. Now, mercifully, that era is behind us. Who else does Harvard president Drew Faust have on speed-dial? Dr. Oz? Dr. Phil? Step right up!
After Oprah’s dramatic overture came the usual heartfelt pearls of wisdom: Don’t let failure keep you down, “learn from every mistake,” and, most of all, be true to yourself. She praised Harvard graduates for having obtained “an impressive calling card.” And she thundered against such perennial bugaboos as “Washington cynicism,” guns, and the “24-hour news cycle.”
Not to worry: Oprah’s media empire is presumably exempt from the latter denunciation, despite running 24/7 on cable and Twitter. A recent tweet from Oprah Magazine: “If your shoulders are still feeling tense from the workweek, you need to try these 4 on-the-spot calming techniques.” Actually, such advice is probably more useful than the kind most graduation speakers give.
Perhaps this explains the lack of outcry from Harvard students, alumni, and faculty against her selection in the first place. “Viva Oprah!” declared the Harvard Crimson in a March 11 editorial proclaiming their “unequivocal” endorsement. Though conceding that Oprah has promoted “persons of questionable opinions about medicine and self-improvement, exposing millions of her viewers to pseudoscientific arguments,” the student-run newspaper deemed such episodes “irrelevant.” Sounding a bit like Oprah herself, the editors went on to extol Ms. Winfrey’s “extraordinary story of determination in the face of adversity, her progress in advancing the status of women and members of ethnic minorities, and her role in abating prejudice against LGBTQ Americans.”
Not everyone was so willing to put identity politics ahead of substance. One notable exception was former dean of the college Harry R. Lewis, who deserves credit for daring to suggest that the empress had no clothes – even as she prepared to drape herself in crimson. “It seems very odd for Harvard to honor such a high-profile popularizer of the irrational,” said Lewis on his blog. “I can’t square this in my mind, at a time when political and religious nonsense so imperil the rule of reason in this allegedly enlightened democracy and around the world.”
Other voices of reason included Erika and Nicolas Christakis, a Harvard administrator and Harvard Medical School professor respectively. “It’s possible to admire Oprah Winfrey and still wish that Harvard hadn’t awarded her an honorary doctor of law degree and the coveted commencement speaker spot at yesterday’s graduation,” the Christakises opined in Time. Though careful to assure readers that Oprah’s achievements “belong in the pantheon of American success stories,” they noted the irony that a university whose motto is Veritas would endorse a celebrity who has done perhaps more than anyone else to spread “phony science,” such as the theory that vaccines cause autism or the dubious self-help manifesto The Secret.
After the speech, Ms. Christakis reiterated on her blog that “Harvard and Oprah don’t mix.” Even then, she felt compelled to preface her critique with her love for all things O: “I love Oprah! I do. I love her embrace of education and teachers. I love her books… I love the interviews. I am an eager devotee of the beauty and fashion advice. And I’ve seen/heard Oprah up close, in person, three times and found her beautiful, smart, wildly charismatic (in a good way), and all things admirable.” No wonder Queen O is often ranked the world’s most influential woman.
Oprah is widely admired for her rags-to-riches story, her entrepreneurial ambition and philanthropic impulses. But to say she lacks intellectual gravitas would be an understatement. President Faust, a notable scholar herself, should have thought twice before making this latest Faustian bargain with pop culture.
Alexander Kazam, a graduate of the Harvard class of 2011, is a Tikvah Fellow in New York.