Commencement Follies

  Since the end of World War II, commencement ceremonies have been the occasion for some of the most memorable and important speeches of our time. A good example is the 1963 commencement address at American University in Washington. It was there that President John F. Kennedy announced a halt to atmospheric nuclear testing and pledged to work for "not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time." Thirty-nine years later, another commencement address on the same campus showed what our culture regards today as important. According to The Washington Post, nowadays what people are looking for in a commencement speaker isn't lofty rhetoric about "big issues." Rather, it's star power, combined with the ability to "amuse the grads." To achieve this winning combination, the American University class of 2002 heard from actress Goldie Hawn, who told the audience that it was time for them to attend the "college of you." In the same way, three years ago, Pulitzer Prize- winning columnist Anna Quindlen told graduates of Mt. Holyoke to "set aside" the expectations, demands, and requirements imposed by others. Instead, she urged her audience to do what they thought was best for them. This emphasis on entertainment and the self was repeated on college campuses across the country this commencement season. New graduates heard from the likes of humorist Garrison Keillor, Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates, and playwright Tony Kushner. What the POST calls the "new favored focus" of graduation speeches represents the coming together of two of the dominant trends in our culture. The first is what sociologist Philip Rieff calls "The Triumph of the Therapeutic." The values of psychotherapy with its emphasis on individual fulfillment, dominates our thinking. The therapeutic worldview urges us, as Hawn and Quindlen urged their audiences, to "find yourself." Instead of greatness or accomplishment or leadership -- the traditional themes of commencement speeches -- we should strive for emotional and psychological well-being. The second trend is the impact of mass media. Several generations raised on cable television, movies, video games, and the Internet have come to regard not being bored as a right. Thanks to our twenty-four-hour-a-day media culture, they expect that every bit of information coming their way will arrive in an entertaining package. If it doesn't, they're likely to just tune out. I wish I could say that Christians were immune to both of these trends. But as Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio has written, our churches also feel the need to entertain. And Christians are just as preoccupied with self as the rest of the culture. Christians, of all people, should know that mighty acts and moral greatness are not achieved by people preoccupied with the self and insisting on being entertained. To rise to greatness requires just the reverse: a sacrifice of self and a willingness to conform our desires to a cause greater than ourselves. No wonder these qualities seem to be in short supply in younger people. We spend four years giving them an education and then pander to their worst instincts as we send them off into the world. For more information: Charles Colson, "Doing the Right Thing," audiotape of 2002 baccalaureate speech at Parkview High School in Lilburn, Ga. Amy Argetsinger, "On the Dais, Witty Replaces the Weighty," The Washington Post, 20 May 2002, B1. Read President John F. Kennedy's commencement speech at American University (10 June 1963). Read Anna Quindlen's commencement speech at Mt. Holyoke College (23 May 1999). Ken Myers, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Crossway, 1989).


Chuck Colson


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