I haven’t gotten around to writing a commencement address this year, which is no great, urgent problem because I haven’t gotten around to being invited to give a commencement address, either.
Normally, not being asked to give one wouldn’t stop me from writing one. In the past several years, I have written at least 10 or 12, maybe even 15, commencement addresses, even though universities and colleges by the hundreds have allowed the opportunity to have me there, dispensing all the wisdom I have to offer, slip through their fingers
But that’s OK. I don’t mind, not really. I mean, it was my choice not to be as famous as Oprah or as rich as Warren Buffet. And I knew back when I chose not to be as limited in scope as Neil deGrasse Tyson or Stephen Hawking it would probably come back to haunt me.
Still, I have enjoyed writing those speeches, and enjoyed even more imagining I was on an ivy-covered campus somewhere, all capped and gowned like an excellanus emeritus
, delivering them. There is something about a commencement ceremony that strums my strings, I tell you: the mortar boards… the tassels… the pomp... the circumstance… the solemn recognition that the treasures of civilized humanity are being passed from generation to generation… from master to student… that the Pursuit of Knowledge and Truth and Art are worth the sacrifice of a few years of one’s youth, even though a good deal of that sacrifice may well have amounted to binge drinking weekends away, struggling like Sisyphus to get laid before your sophomore year comes to an end and huddling around a Pizza Hut table with a clot of like-minded loners/losers, discussing what the meaning of life might be, especially as it relates to coming-of-age classics like Catcher in the Rye
It is a world we’re losing, I fear—that summa cum zeitgeistus
of the traditional collegiate ecosystem. About anything can call itself a “university” these days, even if the closest thing to a “campus” is a converted warehouse from which they mail out diplomas, to online courses taught by “scholars” whose academic careers amount to getting a few credits in the arcane study of finger-printing or learning the distinction between weights and measures.
And who can blame a student for choosing a faux
learning experience over a real one? In an age when the most boorish of political leaders are under-funding the very institutions charged with enlightening American citizens and blazing trails into the future with the research they provide, then allowing for-profit substitutes to operate amok with the sort of impunity only a radical laissez faire
lawlessness would tolerate, who can fault the poor academic aspirant a chance to put any sort of education in his backpack, no matter how insubstantial, without crushing himself with debt?
Ah, but once again I have slipped off into territorius bitternostus
here. It was never my intention to turn this into a screed against the forces in American society to whom intellectual achievement means absolutely nothing. Nor should I lament the passing of the Ivory Towers too soon, for there are still plenty of Ivory Towers around, even if attending them probably means you must sub-lease your testicles to Sallie Mae in order to afford your stay.
All I meant to do was celebrate this year’s crop of graduates, not so much with predictions of a promising future in their future, but more with a musical representation of what they are leaving behind—the world of dormitory high jinks and late night discussions, of exhaustion from study and of exhilaration from learning, of anxiety over GPAs and of elation over acing a final, of the awe of being treated like an adult for the first time in your young life when you start, and of the satisfaction of being respected as a peer when you’re finished.
It is all great stuff, and it’s no mystery to me why the dream of so many academics was always to be an academic. To this old man, long gone from my last lecture hall, nobody has ever captured the spirit of that college milieu and the basic nobility of the human desire to learn better than Brahms—that would be Johannes to his friends—in his Academic Festival Overture
, written for graduation ceremonies at the University of Breslau in 1880. We played it in my first year as the second-chair trombone in the University of Idaho orchestra, and it has represented to me the experience of being a student ever since.
It’s my graduation present to you, blooming scholars. If it works on you like it works on me, it will make you a bit prouder of what you spent the last few years becoming.
(Incidentally, there are some italicized words in the above text you may be tempted to google. Or if you’re one of those industrious sorts, you might even grab a dictionary. Don’t bother. I made a few of them up. Grand universities and time-honored colleges would rather this doesn’t become general knowledge, but it’s something graduates are allowed to do—make up words. But use the privilege wisely. You never know who might take your made-up word and abuse it.)