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Rethinking Commencement

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“What we call the beginning is often the end; and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

Twenty-five years ago this week, I used those words from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” to start my high school commencement speech. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I had stood on that same stage numerous times before and had spent much of my high school tenure learning to manage my public speaking fears. There was always a familiar pang that started out as a low murmur before creeping up to a searing tightness in my chest. Our debate coach taught us to channel that anxiety into an object that could be an extension of ourselves. To this day I always keep a pen nearby when I have to speak. But this time was different. The pressure was markedly higher because I thought everyone in the audience entered the auditorium expecting to be wowed by some memorable speech whose message would ring in their ears for years to come. My classmates had chosen three of us to be the student speakers for the graduating class of E.C. Glass High School and I wanted to show my appreciation by making the most of my two minutes before them. It felt like an impossible task and one that led me to literally sprawl out on the floor of my English teacher’s classroom and beg her to let someone else give the speech. She didn’t budge despite my ridiculous pleas.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean

Today, I thank her for it. But at the time, I resented her for making me step into that lion’s den and face my greatest fears. When it was my turn I stepped to the podium, closed my eyes and said a quick prayer, then took a deep breath before reading Eliot’s words. I chose the quote because I thought it accurately captured the ending of our familiar time as high school students before embarking on the uncertainty of adulthood. Ironically, it was a few months later in my freshman writing class that I learned about Eliot’s deplorable embrace of anti-semitism, racism and sexism. Give thanks for learning and growth.

That two minute speech felt like forever but midway through I realized the only people who really cared about that speech were my family and me. Despite the polite applause and affirming nods of my peers, the “main event” was yet to come. People were there to hear a school administrator give the futile admonition, “please hold your applause until all the graduates have been called,” before erupting in thunderous applause, yells, and an occasional air horn to honor their loved one crossing the stage. After attending over 35 graduations from large public universities to small alternative education programs and watching years of C-SPAN broadcasts of high-profile commencements, I’ve learned that the speeches are rarely what people remember most about a graduation. So maybe it’s time to rethink our approach to commencement.

Each year colleges and universities scramble to find speakers who can speak to Finance majors with the same passion they address Sociology majors. This year students at my own institution heard a set of awe-inspiring speeches anchored by Reginald Dwayne Betts and two students who reminded all of us that there is purpose in our challenges. But every year there are a handful of colleges whose choice of speaker engenders controversy and outrage. Five years ago social media was abuzz with criticism after Howard University chose Sean Combs as a speaker. Some questioned whether Dr. Diddy was an appropriate selection for the august institution while others celebrated the embrace of pop culture. This year planned speeches by Mike Pence at Taylor University, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at Spelman and former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson at USC Law School ignited fierce debates about the alignment institutional mission and values. From online petitions to walkouts, graduates and their allies raised their voices in protest.

Most commencement speakers aren’t chosen because of their potential impact on students. Universities often use them as a marketing tool to court future students and attract precious donations from alums and corporations. To be clear, I join in the chorus of people celebrating Robert F. Smith’s monumental investment in Morehouse College’s Class of 2019 and give the scholarly side eye to those who refuse to acknowledge how his individual act of philanthropy is actually an indictment of structural inequality. I also recognize that sometimes commencement speakers reify the very cannons that universities are meant to fight against. So here’s my modest proposal: let’s do away with the lofty speeches written by people who have little if any connection to the university.

Let’s hear more from students. But not the student who had to choose between accepting the Rhodes Scholarship or heading off to the Peace Corps. Let’s hear from the student who by most indicators was fairly average. What can they offer to young people about seeking meaning in life beyond a stellar GPA? Let’s hear from the student who spent two semesters on academic probation because they thought weekends started on Wednesdays and that Friday morning recitation sections were optional even though the syllabus clearly stated they weren’t. Failure is an inherent part of life but in this age of helicopter parents and tiger Moms too many students are insulated from learning the skills of resilience and persistence. Here’s a more radical proposal. How about we hear from a parent who struggled to pay their kids way or who battled some debilitating illness but still found the courage to make it possible for their child to walk the stage on that day. Perhaps their speech could impart valuable attributes that are sorely lacking among so many: humility, grace, and gratitude.

What about hearing from professors who often know your child better than you do? Who reached out to offer mental health support or who inspires students to imagine a world beyond their individual experience? I’d love to hear a commencement address given by staff members like the cashier in the cafeteria, a security officer, or a custodian who offered a daily dose of humor and down home wisdom that lets students know no matter what they are facing, there will always be one person whose daily presence simply yet powerfully says, “I see you.” That’s the speech I look forward to hearing as we celebrate the graduations of my niece and nephew next month. Congratulations to the Class of 2019.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University where she writes about American politics, political psychology and public policy. Her book, Identity Politics in the United States, will be released by Polity Press in September 2019. You can follow her online @KBDPHD.

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