Thursday, May 29, 2014

Who's speaking at which commencement? Who cares?

Ordinarily, I am dismissive of those who lament technology’s effects on our previously “untainted” lives. My response to those who wax nostalgic about pen-and-ink letters and how e-mail doesn’t reflect tone and nuance (and ink on paper does?) is “Get over it”. However, there’s one phenomenon to which I have a visceral opposition: the media circus surrounding college graduations. Well, not all college graduations, as none but the local press are covering 90% thereof. I’m talking about the top colleges, i.e., the Ivy League and the second tier.

We see here, in fact, that through the 1990s, U. of Michigan’s commencement speakers were either past or present officeholders, educators, or esteemed journalists. But scroll up to 2009 and 2013, and who do we see? The CEOs of Google and Twitter, respectively. We see here that in the 41 years 1972-2013, 19 of Northfield Mount Hermon’s speakers, i.e., nearly half, were alums. Totally appropriate. In this list from Syracuse University, we see that the first TV personality showed up in 1980, and it was the host of a PBS news program. But from 1994 onward, and especially from 2000, we see the glitz becoming more and more prominent. These are just a few lists reflecting the trend.

Pre-Internet, there was college bookstore merch. Sure, you wore your crimson / blue hoodie and your car sported your Harvard / Yale bumper sticker. You were signaling, or perhaps you just liked the hoodie, but it was an individual, unmediated affair. Sure the New York Times reported on commencement keynote speakers, but it wasn’t splashed across the front page and trumpeted for weeks on end.

Now, however, from March through May, you can hardly open your browser without seeing “who’s speaking at which commencement”. It’s signaling on steroids, and it gets more frenzied every year. I propose a mass “mental boycott” of the hoopla. You attend a selective school? Good for you. Wear your hoodie with pride. Your school has glitzy alums? Great. Invite ‘em back for commencement and award ‘em an honorary degree. But please, leave the rest of us out of it. We Officially Don’t Care.


  1. Molly Saferstein NewmanJune 28, 2015 at 11:37 AM

    Maybe the glitz is an incentive for graduates to attend the ceremonies? You can always get your diploma by mail. Maybe attendance is down without celebrities?

  2. Good points, Mollie. I just interpreted it as "Look at us; look at how elite we are. Nya nya nya." But yeah, I can see that it's a way to attract an audience. Otherwise graduations are long and boring, and parents drive for hours / fly / stay one or more nights in a motel so they might as well get to hear a glitzy speaker. Got it.