What Do Commencement Speeches Tell Us About the Current Zeitgeist?

It’s graduation season. Time to put on a funny square hat, sit in a crowded room, and listen to someone speak words that are intended to send you off into the next phase of life.

It’s graduation season, so it must also be time for commencement speeches. Now, for most of us, graduation presentations are, at best, mildly interesting filler til they’re ready to pass out the diplomas, and at worst, boring bromides that are an anticlimactic way to end four years of homework and hard work.

But they are also something more. In a study of a hundred years of commencement speeches, Markella Rutherford has learned that we can tell a lot about the direction of society, and what society values, by what people say at graduations. In a summary of Rutherford’s research, the writer Chi Luu puts it this way:

Over the last hundred years, as our sense of individualism has grown and prospered, the idea of moral choice and the public understanding of morality has also become highly individualistic. While this can certainly be celebrated for freeing many from the more restrictive social rules of the past, it also seems to have left a kind of modern malaise, an age of anxiety in its wake. To put it simply, without an “objective” moral authority or rigid social structure, how can we be certain we’re doing the right thing?

What a great question! With moral choice becoming more individualized, how do we know what to do? And thus, how do newly-minted graduates know what to do now that they are being unleashed on the world?

To drill down on Rutherford’s research, Luu analyzed 10 specific commencement addresses to see what kinds of words and themes they frequently used. One word commonly used is “Yes.” Two speeches urge saying Yes as often as you can, while another recognizes that Yes will get you in trouble, while others recognize that ‘saying yes’ will lead you to look foolish. But go ahead and do it anyway.

Here’s the thing: Yes is a great word. In fact, it’s at the heart of one of my favorite passages. But for a Yes to be healthy, it has to be partnered with No. That is: we don’t only say Yes, throwing that word around as if it were confetti. We are only able to say Yes to what matters most, because we first turn away from what doesn’t. We are only able to really embrace the life we are called to when we also put up boundaries. We never just say Yes; we also have to learn to say No.

And sometimes that No is hard. Sometimes we say it to our feelings, or to what we desire in the moment. Oftentimes we feel alone in saying No; saying Yes would be so much easier. But a person who can’t say No, doesn’t really know how to say Yes. For both words must be a part of any healthy and whole life.

Or, how about the word “love”? Great word; but even more, it’s an essential practice. Now, certainly, some uses of the word Love are benign, or even good. But in the commencement speeches, there are also quotes like this one: “Make your own hope. Make your own love.”

And this one: “Keep loving what you love.”

Huh? How do I make my own love? Is it a feeling or something I conjure up? And what if what I love is destructive, or divisive, or downright petty? Should I keep loving it?

In comparison to current-day commencements, Chi Luu references a commencement speech from 1923 by a man named R.A. Carter, delivered at Paine College:

Some one has well said: “Everywhere and at all times, the men who have had definite convictions upon the great issues, and have courageously chosen righteousness, are the men who have directed the course of nations.” Also, you must have the ability to go the route morally…. You must not think that you can select the Commandments which you will keep and reject those which you do not like. The moral code of mankind, crystallized into the Ten Commandments by Moses, is the result of the reasoned experience of men who lived ages before Moses. Observation and experience convinced thoughtful men long ages ago that it is harmful to the individual, as well as to the community, to lie, to steal, to kill, and to commit adultery…

Now, I wouldn’t say things the way Mr. Carter does, and my style would certainly be different. But his overall approach, and his underlying assumption that there must be a moral foundation to our choices — well, there’s no denying that.

But commencements like Carter’s are apparently going the way of the condor. In her sampling of 10 recent speeches. you want to guess how many times Luu discover the use of the word “musn’t” in those 10? Zero. Because, I mean, really: Who are YOU to tell ME what I must not do?

The word “must,” however, does appear in the 10 speeches, like in Bradley Whitford’s address, where he says, “You must be your own guide.”

Bradley, I must say: I like you on The West Wing. You’re a very good actor. But I’ve also got to say: your advice undercuts your goal. We already have too many people who are serving as their own guides — leading to a lack of love, a disregard for creation, and the very aimlessness and malaise that is the very issue you are trying to address.

We have plenty of people who are currently saying: Dude, I gotta listen to my inner voice. To which I want to say: Dude, it’s your inner voice, and MY inner voice, that often gets us in trouble. Yes, there are times I need to follow my heart. Yes, there are times I need to do what I love. Yes, I must be an authentic person.

But all of those become aimless aphorisms unless, unless, I have a grounding, a foundation, an understanding of who I am. An understanding that isn’t limited to my own inner guide. For that, I’ve got to know the One who created me; I’ve got to listen to the One who knows me better than I know myself; and I’ve got to find myself in the One who will truly help me commence a life worth graduating into.

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