Truth in Commencement Addresses

Truth is not often something that gets a good run in most high school or college commencement speeches. Often we have a mix of schmaltzy, feel-good, self-serving and New Age mumbo jumbo. The kids who have been flattered and pampered all their lives simply get more of the same as they finally graduate.

Undoubtedly recent generations of kids have been amongst the most cosseted, protected, pampered and over-indulged ever. Far too many think the world owes them everything, and plenty of misguided and over-protective adults have done everything they can to make sure little Johnny’s self-esteem is not bruised.

We have raised our kids with kid gloves, in other words, even when they are no longer kids. We treat them as fragile, easily broken glass ornaments – kids who never should be disciplined, told about boundaries, and given the occasional kick in the backside.

A generation of narcissists running amok is the unfortunate result of all this. But I have written elsewhere about this concern:

And sadly all this narcissism is often reinforced at these commencement addresses. The graduating kids are mostly told what they want to hear, but seldom told what they need to hear. Of course there are some exceptions to the rule here.

On June 8, 1978 Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered the commencement address to Harvard University. In his stirring speech he argued that a demoralised and post-Christian West is no match for, and not much better than, Soviet totalitarianism.

He called for a moral and spiritual renewal in America to enable it to withstand atheistic, humanistic communism. Yet for his efforts he was greeted with boos and derision from those educated elite kids at Harvard. Here is a small part of this important and moving speech:

“But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just mentioned are extremely saddening.

“A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life’s complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper and more interesting characters than those produced by standardized Western well-being. Therefore if our society were to be transformed into yours, it would mean an improvement in certain aspects, but also a change for the worse on some particularly significant scores.

“It is true, no doubt, that a society cannot remain in an abyss of lawlessness, as is the case in our country. But it is also demeaning for it to elect such mechanical legalistic smoothness as you have. After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music. All this is visible to observers from all the worlds of our planet. The Western way of life is less and less likely to become the leading model.

“There are meaningful warnings that history gives a threatened or perishing society. Such are, for instance, the decadence of art, or a lack of great statesmen. There are open and evident warnings, too. The center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then, the social system quite unstable and unhealthy.

“But the fight for our planet, physical and spiritual, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future; it has already started. The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive, you can feel their pressure, and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?”

No wonder the spoiled rotten, secular and amoral Harvard grads hated what he had to say. Yet it was exactly what they needed to hear. Fortunately there are a few others willing to give our students what they need, and not what they want.

Consider this recent high school commencement speaker, David McCullough. Here is how one New York newspaper carries this story: “He gets points for being blunt, at least. A straight-talking English teacher at Wellesley High School set out to take students down a notch in his speech to the class of 2012, by telling them they’re nothing special.

“‘You are not special. You are not exceptional,’ David McCullough Jr. told graduating seniors from the affluent Massachusetts town last weekend. The teacher’s controversial advice caught the nation’s eye, in an age where many believe today’s youth suffer from a sense of self-importance.

“‘Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped,’ McCullough said in his speech. ‘Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. … But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not’.”

Now that’s what I’m talking about. Finally someone willing to pop their balloons and get these over-indulged kids back to earth. Finally someone willing to tell it like it is to this narcissistic generation. This is what they should have heard a lot earlier.

Of course a proper sense of self-esteem, because we are made in God’s image and deeply loved by him, is another matter. We are special because of who we are in God’s view. But we are also a bunch of rebellious sinners who have shaken our fists at God, and tried to usurp his rightful place as ruler of the universe.

So while there is a place for helping kids with some legitimate lagging self-worth issues, our main problem today in the West is really on the other end of the spectrum. Far too many kids think they are the centre of the universe, and that everyone and everything owes them big time.

One simply has to tune into MTV or catch an episode of Jersey Shore to see this crippling narcissism and hedonism in place. Fortunately a few wise and courageous adults still exist who are willing to put this pampered generation in its place. We could use a few more of them.

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7 Replies to “Truth in Commencement Addresses”

  1. At one stage in the 1990s when I was a teacher I was taken to task for not handing out enough merit awards to my classes. Some of the students even used to ak me for awards and I made one absolute rule- no one who asked for one would get one. I wasn’t an outstanding teacher by any means, but at least I could see the nonsense of handing out awards just for the sake of it when there was only mediocre effort being put in. Even a good effort usually merited only a verbal or written “well-done”.

    On the other hand seeing the results of a bit of verbal encouragement was at times very pleasing. Balance is important, but I think Bill’s comments are quite warranted.

    David Morrison

  2. But Bill, if we give everyone a prize and tell them how wonderful their effort is, isn`t that the sort of “Fairness” the Left embraces. It may not be right, but surely it`s fair.
    Have to admit though, with my own children, they only seem to remember the times we pointed out they could do better, rather than them remembering the praise they received when they put in the effort.
    Australia seems to be settling in to the Fairness approach, and in doing so is only fostering everyone to be mediocre, that`s not encouraging. The middle east on the other hand seems to be encouraging underachievers, maybe for fear of upsurgents.
    John Archer

  3. “Far too many kids think they are the centre of the universe”

    Bill isn’t it ironic that they are told this, whilst the scientists are busy telling us that we are nothing special in the universe, oh, and that the universe has no centre!

    John Angelico

  4. The self-esteem movement has a lot to answer for. We have divorced the concept of self-esteem from achievement and responsibility. You can’t have the former without the latter.

    Bullying expert Dr Helen McGrath recently made the point that bullies don’t have low self-esteem but too much. This was the outcome of a brand new study on the link between self-esteem and bullying. Praising your kid too much can make a little narcissist lacking in empathy for others;

    Damien Spillane

  5. How accurate was Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his remarks about the absence of statesmen/leaders of any stature and the decadence of art. Where, in Australia, is there a leader of any greatness or integrity? And as for the trashy inferiority and downright immorality of so much of what’s on offer in every domain of the arts; who could ever have envisaged a sane society accepting, let alone engaging with, such artistically and morally bankrupt twaddle!! Heaven help us!
    Anna Cook

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