Jay Parini argues in the latest edition of Chronicle of Higher Education that graduation speeches really do matter. He makes note of what makes a good one--and what makes a poor one. Alas, when I wrote my speech for the Franklin Classical School graduation, I had not yet read Parini's comments and as a result was unable to heed his counsel.
Nevertheless, I am ready to plunge ahead, with only a little temerity, to give my speech this afternoon, come what may:
According to speech writing wiz Peggy Noonan, “The commencement address is the unique and exclusive province of the great American cliché.” Likewise, according to stump speech veteran Cal Thomas, “The real key to a good graduation talk is the creative use of one cliché after another.” Indeed, commencement speeches can all too easily fall prey to an almost Seinfeldian parody of rhetorical composition:
You are the leaders of tomorrow; This isn’t the end; it’s a new beginning; You came into this school as strangers and are leaving as friends; Cherish this moment; You’ll look back and say that these were the best days of your lives; You’re now turning an important page in the story of your lives; Now begins the next chapter; You’re going to step through these doors and into the real world; Today is the first day of the rest of your life; Be true to yourself; Reach for the stars; You can be anything you want to be; You can do anything you put your mind to do; You can be president someday, or usher in world peace, or end poverty, or maybe even end global warming and patch the hole in the ozone; So, wish upon a falling star; You only go round once in life so grab for all the gusto; You deserve a break today, so get up and get away; Plop, plop fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is; Somewhere over the rainbow; Twinkle-twinkle little star; Keep in touch, do good work, always say please and thank you, be strong, take heart, and standfast, remember to fasten your seat belt, eat a good breakfast, don’t play your iPod too loud; brush after every meal; and always, always, wear sunscreen; Yada, yada, yada.
Now, the thing about clichés is that they are perfectly satisfactory and perhaps in some strange way even satisfying as long as we don’t think about them too much. But, then you see, that is precisely the problem with trying to give a commencement speech to a group of FCS students—you think. Clichés, hackneyed phrases, pat answers, bromides, and truisms just won’t do—not here, not now, not with the likes of you in the crowd.
John Buchan once said, “Our greatest inheritance, the very foundation of our civilization, is a marvel to behold and consider. If I tried to describe its rich legacy with utmost brevity, I should take the Latin word humanitas. It represents in the widest sense, the accumulated harvest of the ages, the fine flower of a long discipline of Christian thought. It is the Western mind.”
At FCS, you have been brought again and again to consider, by various means, this great legacy. And when you first began to apprehend it, you were thereafter forever changed. Though you remain regular American teenagers, you have suddenly found that you can think. I mean, really think.
In other words, you have been ruined. Ruined in the sense that your pop-culture spam filters are now set on high—whether you like it or not. Now, if that is itself at risk of becoming clichéd—right up there with “ideas have consequences; worldviews matter; the right thing done in the wrong way will always result in disaster; if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly, etc, etc,” well, so be it. Some truisms really are true.
G.K. Chesterton once quipped that, “The great intellectual tradition that comes down to us from the past was never interrupted or lost through such trifles as the sack of Rome, the triumph of Attila, or all the barbarian invasions of the Dark Ages. It was lost after the introduction of printing, the discovery of America, the coming of the marvels of technology, the establishment of universal education, and all the enlightenment of the modern world. It was there, if anywhere, that there was lost or impatiently snapped the long thin delicate thread that had descended from distant antiquity; the thread of that unusual human hobby: the habit of thinking.”
At FCS you have learned to darn the frayed ends of that venerable old thread back together again. You’ve learned how to think. And that has made all the difference.
You have been given much: You’ve received an amazing inheritance of Art, Music, Literature, and Ideas, of Philosophy, of Science and of Mathematics. You’ve received a tradition of excellence. You’ve been taught what it means to have both passion and purity. You’ve learned of the essence of chivalry, valor, and godly servant-leadership.
You’ve also been the beneficiaries of an extraordinary web of relationships. You’ve begun to understand that classical education is more about a culture than it is about a curriculum. It’s more about a way of life than it is a way of doing. It’s more a vision of what God’s called you to than it is a mechanical set of prescriptives that are to be implemented in your life. It is about accountability, about community, about the rich covenant into which you have been grafted by God’s good providence.
Arthur Quiller-Couch, the mentor of a host of literary luminaries including C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Dorothy Sayers once described what you’ve received in this fashion, “You are indeed the heirs of a remarkable legacy--a legacy that has passed into your hands after no little tumult and travail; a legacy that is the happy result of sacrificial human relations, no less than of stupendous human achievements; a legacy that demands of you a lifetime of vigilance and diligence so that you may in turn pass the fruits of Christian civilization on to succeeding generations. This is the essence of the biblical view, the covenantal view, and the classical view of education. This is the great legacy of truth of which you are now the chief beneficiaries.”
Therein lies your ruination. And it is a glorious ruining indeed. We are a blessed people in a blessed community. And that is no cliché. This truism is true. Let us therefore give thanks to the Giver of every good and perfect gift: thanks be to our Sovereign Lord!
I do indeed give Him thanks. For you and for your ruination!