Entertaining Commencement

The following piece was written by Cherie Harder, President of the Trinity Forum, as well as Afternoon Seminar leader for the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute 2011.  She has graciously allowed us to re-post her article here.

Entertaining Commencement

In the midst of this graduation season, it is timely to consider one of the more interesting decisions universities make: the choice of a commencement speaker.

It must be a tough call. Who is best suited and equipped to provide parting wisdom to a graduating class, encourage them to live lives of noble purpose, and welcome them to educated society? Whose life and example is both interesting and inspiring enough to command an audience’s respect, and hold their attention? The annual list of college Commencement Speakers provide fascinating insight into what a society values, and what kind of example we seek to transmit to a new generation.

Increasingly, elite universities turn to entertainers to do the job. This year’s Commencement speaker at Yale University is Tom Hanks. At Harvard, comedian Amy Poehler will deliver the Class Day address (with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speaking at Baccalaureate); Brooke Shields will serve as Class Day speaker at Princeton. Denzel Washington will speak at the University of Pennsylvania’s Commencement, Stephen Colbert at Northwestern’s, comedian (“Last Comic Standing”) Jane Conley at Wellesley’s, and Conan O’Brien will do the honors at Dartmouth.

In some ways, this trend is understandable.  It’s less risky to entertain than inspire. Heroes aren’t allowed feet of clay; entertainers are not only allowed but expected to be a tad gritty and dirty. It is easier — and far more amusing — to make a joke than to impart a vision of a life well lived. And, after all, Colbert, Conan, et al. are witty, funny folks.

But there is also something lost. Questions about what makes for a good life are as deep and essential now as they ever were.  Recent works by Anthony Kronman, the former Dean at Yale Law, and Harry Lewis, former Dean at Harvard College, seem to suggest that the humanities departments at these great universities have lost much of their nerve in attempting to address such questions; it is therefore not surprising that the universities would continue to punt the topic at commencement in favor of a few jokes.

But one of the great purposes of the humanities (and part of the university itself) is to engage and explore life’s big questions: what is the good life? What is a good person? What should be honored? And how should we therefore live?

Great literature earns the name by quickening and enlarging one’s imaginative capacity to engage these questions. It shows, rather than tells, the possibilities for love, courage, kindness, grace, justice, and redemption. It opens the heart, as well as the mind, by engaging our empathy and imagination, as well as our reason. It may well be the reason that Jesus told stories more than he delivered sermons.
Similarly, it may be that one of the best graduation gifts one can give is the gift of story and example. Long after yesterday’s celebrities have been forgotten (or consigned to “Dancing with the Stars”), today’s graduates will remember — and be shaped by — those who cared enough to invest in them, by offering their own lives, stories, and favorite books as guidance. For young people struggling to find their way in a sullied and harsh world, story provides a view of the possible, and example provides a blueprint for the actual — not a bad way to enter the “real world.”

Cherie Harder

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