These commencement remarks were delivered at the
John Adams Academy, a charter high school in Roseville,
California, on June 5.
A graduation ceremony is a moment of pride in which we do honor to our graduates—and congratulations to you all—and to their parents and their teachers who were such a help to them. Of course the school gives the honors, but the school consists of students and teachers, supported by parents. So we are doing honor to ourselves. Why should we take the time to do honor to ourselves? Isn’t this a waste of time, effort, and expense? Why stop what we are doing to praise ourselves for doing it?
This is a special school because it specializes in the classics. I too specialize in the classics, and I am a teacher. So I will use the time to teach you something, so that we don’t waste it. I will teach you something that could be learned from Plato and Alexis de Tocqueville, but I won’t refer to their texts and I won’t give a classroom lecture. Let’s return to what we are doing now, holding a celebration.
A celebration is a formal event, one for which everybody is dressed up. Not just dressed, but dressed up. What does the “up” mean? Dressed up is looking your best for an occasion when you want to look your best, an important occasion. You dress in order not to be naked, you dress up to show that is not ordinary work or leisure, but an event. Why do we dress at all? To show ourselves and to cover up ourselves. For an event you dress in formal wear, not informal. What is formal and informal wear surely differs in different times and places, but in every human society there is always a difference. Some people dress up for work or at school, perhaps in uniforms, perhaps by wearing a suit if you work in a fancy office.
Dressing up is done for the sake of society; it is to show yourself at your best. What will others think if you don’t dress up? It’s a sign of respect for what other people think important, but also for what you think is important. It’s a sign of self-respect to dress up for your graduation; you worked hard for your education and you are justly pleased at the result. When dressed up, you look different from when you are dressed informally. You try to look different; that’s your intention so as to show respect for others and for yourself. Formality is a sign of our social and personal sense of self-importance and self-satisfaction.
Now we begin to see a problem. Isn’t it possible that some people may be too self-important and take themselves too seriously? When they dress up, they put on airs. They are not cool, they are what used to be called “phony.” (That’s from a book of my time, The Catcher in the Rye, which I hope is now forgotten.) Not only do they think too much of themselves, they worry too much about what others think of them. People like this are vain, and their formality seems to be the expression of their vanity. They are conceited and stuck up, yet they are also conformist and stuck in a rut. From this you could conclude that informal dress is more honest than fancy dressing up. You appear as you are, not as you wish you were.
This objection says that it is more direct and also more equal to be informal. It follows that democracy, which stands for equality, much prefers informality to formality. Americans, a very democratic people, act accordingly. We are a can-do people; we like to take shortcuts; we don’t like to “stand on ceremony.” We say what we mean, and we like to speak bluntly, without flourishes and without diplomatic niceties; we like efficiency and don’t like to waste time; we get impatient easily.
All these can be positive qualities, but they also harbor a danger. Too much informality can make you disrespectful of other people’s dignity. When you interrupt other people, it may be because you believe you know more or speak better or think faster, but it infringes on their self-expression and makes them feel inferior to you, thus resentful of you. The formality of speaking in turn is more respectful of others. It may slow down the discussion, but perhaps that is not such a bad thing if it keeps you from blurting out ill-considered opinions.