On college campuses all over the country, the classes of 2014 have distinguished themselves like none before — mainly by chasing away their commencement speakers. Students at Smith College scared off Christine Lagarde, the first female managing director of the International Monetary Fund. They circulated a petition claiming she was a poor choice because IMF programs in developing countries are “imperialist” and “patriarchal.” At Rutgers University, where former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been scheduled to speak, students and faculty who opposed her role in the Bush administration kicked up so much dust that Rice decided not to come.
The most impressive display of student hubris, however, may have come from Haverford College, where a group presented former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau with a list of nine demands to meet before he could speak and receive an honorary degree. They wanted Birgeneau, who drew criticism for his role in shutting down campus protests in 2011, to apologize for his actions and write a letter to the Haverford community explaining what he learned from the incident. When he demurred, a former Princeton president instead took to the podium and called students out as “arrogant” and “immature.”
It only takes a few self-righteous student nincompoops to unfairly represent the larger, mostly indifferent nincompoop population. Less than a fifth of Smith’s student body actually signed the petition protesting Lagarde. Objectors at Haverford, according to most reports, amounted to about 50 or so.
As for Rutgers, a campus of roughly 40,000 students, only a few hundred students and faculty were fired up enough to mount a protest against Rice. (Local news coverage suggested many students weren’t entirely sure who Rice was.) This, of course, is the school that in 2011 booked MTV “Jersey Shore” star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi as a campus speaker, and paid her more than that year’s commencement speaker, Nobel-winning author Toni Morrison. Snooki inveighed upon students to “study hard but party harder.”
Well, that’s better than getting a scolding a la Haverford.
Let’s face it, every campus has its share of students who can’t quite comprehend that extreme political correctness is often born of the same intolerance and anti-intellectualism as standard-issue bigotry. And, while that jeremiad provides compelling commencement speech content — appealing to steely conservatives and self-loathing liberals alike — there’s nothing terribly original about lecturing young people about “the real world.”
Soon enough, everyone figures out that you cannot go around customizing your experiences and interactions to conform to your worldview. Soon enough, we all encounter our first boss or landlord or blowhard seatmate on a plane and realize that life does not work like on-demand TV or Internet ads. We’re not handed situations based on our established likes and dislikes; we get what’s available.
Really, that should be the take-away from graduation day: Take what’s there. Graduates should march, sit, listen, collect their diplomas, and then toss their mortarboards up in the air and go get drunk.
Because here’s the thing about commencement speeches: They’re not about the graduates. They’re about the speakers.
They’re about Jill Abramson making headlines for telling Wake Forest grads that in the face of rejection or disappointment, “show what you are made of” — just days after her firing as editor of the New York Times. They’re about appearance fees that sometimes reach six figures. They are about the PR value to the college for landing a big name. They’re about public figures trying to secure something like the near-religious reverence given to David Foster Wallace’s address at Kenyon College in 2005 or George Saunders’ remarks at Syracuse last year.
Which is why the wisest counsel for new graduates isn’t “don’t be so arrogant” but rather “take what you can get.” Marvel at what’s right in front you. And if that happens to be the head of the IMF, get over yourself and be a gracious host. No matter what your politics, you could do a whole lot worse for company. And, believe me, someday very soon, you will.