The sunlit season of college commencement has been darkened this year with news of plagiarism. The school paper at Connecticut College, the College Voice, reported last month that one of the speakers at last year’s commencement, a graduating senior called Peter St. John, wowed his audience with a speech that had been lifted paragraph by paragraph from another commencement address given at Duke in 2008 by the writer Barbara Kingsolver.
The incident raises all the usual grisly plagiarism questions, some easier to answer than others. Ask why St. John stole another person’s words, and the answer is obvious: He couldn’t come up with a speech on his own, so in a display of bad character, he took what wasn’t his. Ask why, with all the words in the world to choose from, he stole Barbara Kingsolver’s words, and the answer is . . . I’m stumped. Her Duke speech is a sopping thing, wet with cloying sentiment and precious humor, limp with exhausted ideas and easy flattery, an updated version of the Robert Fulghum 1980s gagfest Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kinder-garten. In my opinion.
But what do I know? It turns out that among commencement buffs, Kingsolver’s address has become legendary, a classic. It was a big hit even coming out of the mouth of St. John the word bandit, who spoke on the same podium as the keynote speaker, the feminist professor Martha Nussbaum. “St. John’s speech was by far the most well-received of Commencement,” the College Voice noted in its report, “more relatable and persuasive than even Nussbaum’s.” Try being more relatable than Martha Nussbaum. It’s not easy.
As the mists close around the retreating memory of our own commencements, some of us have evidently lost touch with the genre of the graduation day address. Kingsolver’s speech, says Inside Higher Ed, is “a talk that turns up on some lists of the best commencement talks ever.” From what I’ve seen, it turns up on all the lists, usually near the top. They show remarkable unanimity, these top 10 lists, and the speeches they rank are evidence of the shifting nature of generational expectation. In any given era they reveal what we want our children to know as they enter the wider world, brimming with youthful vigor and optimism, eager to make the rest of us feel crapulent and obsolete.
In a nod to the past and as a gesture of continuity, every list of the best commencement speeches has a token appearance by at least one dead person. Time magazine, in a list got out last year, was typical in including the address delivered at Harvard by George Marshall in 1947 and President Kennedy’s speech at American University in 1963. Marshall used his speech to announce his plan to rebuild the postwar European economy, and Kennedy used his to argue for an international ban on the testing of nuclear weapons.
What strikes you most about these remarks is their elevated tone. To the youthful ear they must sound Victorian in their formality. “I need not tell you gentlemen that the world situation is very serious,” the jowly old secretary of state rumbled to the Harvard Class of ’47. “I commend all those who are today graduating,” Kennedy said at American, and went on to quote Woodrow Wilson’s assertion that “every man sent out from a university should be a man of his nation as well as a man of his time.”
“I am confident,” Kennedy continued, “that the men and women who carry the honor of graduating from this institution will continue to give from their lives, from their talents, a high measure of public service and public support.”
Both speeches go on to offer an interpretation of world events and to make a fairly complicated argument about what should come next. The words and their seriousness lend the occasion the weight of a rite of initiation, with one adult addressing an audience of his freshly minted peers: You’re all grown up now, so your mother and I think you’re old enough to understand what I’m about to tell you. The terms are cordial but not intimate. This was back before the epidemic of first-naming made intimacy mandatory in social interaction and speech. Remarks like these must have served at least to delay the epidemic. It’s not easy to imagine a graduate of ’47 crossing the stage in Harvard Yard, taking his diploma from the secretary of state, and saying, “Thanks, George.”
Today’s successful speaker, if he is to be relatable, will toss phrases like “men and women” and “ladies and gentlemen” to history’s compost. In my recent studies I may have found the transition point, the moment when “I commend these men and women” became “Hey, you guys.” Anna Quindlen, a former columnist for the New York Times, didn’t use that precise phrase in her commencement address, which is almost Kingsol-verian in its popularity. But she did perfectly embody the forced chumminess that speakers are expected to assume in front of the spoken-to, as well as the solipsism that underlies it.
“Begin with that most terrifying of all things, a clean slate,” she told Mount Holyoke’s class of ’99. “Then look, every day, at the choices you are making, and when you ask yourself why you are making them, find this answer: for me, for me!”
If you were a graduate today, and you were faced with the choice of listening to a public intellectual like Anna Quindlen or something else, you would do what today’s graduates try to do: choose something else. This is much to their credit. And so they choose TV stars. This is less to their credit, but after four years in the world’s finest system of higher education it’s what they know. Most lists of best commencement speeches include talks by the comedians Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. Time, for its part, inexplicably included a speech by the actor who played that White House political adviser on West Wing. The balding, red-headed one. He told the class of 2006 at the University of Wisconsin to “be the active hero of your own life.”
The comedians, meanwhile, deliver stand-up routines. They offer the graduates a polished and extremely pricey entertainment essentially for free—the cost of an honorary degree; nothing, in other words. Maybe it dawns on them that they’re getting taken, because a thin vein of hostility runs through their talks.
“Whenever I hear that song,” Stewart said, after the band played his alma mater, “I think of nothing.” Colbert appeared at tiny Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. In the space of a half hour he managed to insult them by pretending not to know the name of their town, dropping the f-bomb twice in front of the assembled grandparents and moms and dads, and ridiculing the name of their sports teams (“ The ‘Prairie Fire’ . . . I assume the ‘Flash Floods’ was taken”).
The graduates roared with laughter. They’d seen him on TV.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.