Durkheim at Commencement

May 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

All these commencement speakers withdrawing because of student protests.  Condoleezza Rice is the best-known, but in his Times op-ed today (here), Timothy Egan mentions several others. The title on Egan’s piece is “The Commencement Bigots,” but Egan’s name-calling doesn’t end at “bigots.”  There’s “fragile,” (overly) “sensitive,” “strong-arm tactics,” “bully,” and “pressure tactics designed to kill opposing views.” That last one is a bit long for playground shouting, but I guess “poopooheads” wouldn’t pass the Times stylesheet, though “kill” is a nice touch.

Egan concludes:
 the lefty thought police at Smith, Haverford and Rutgers share one thing with the knuckle-dragging hard right in Oklahoma: They’re afraid of hearing something that might spoil a view of the world they’ve already figured out.
Other commentators take the “I’m rubber and you’re glue” approach saying that it’s the speakers who are the cowards. They’re the ones who chickened out. As Egan says, almost in contradiction to his argument about who it is that’s afraid, Rice “canceled after a small knot of protesters pressured the university.” Brave Condi, who stood up to Saddam and other brutal tyrants, unwilling to speak to an audience that might have small knot of protesters. 

Durkheim would have had so much to contribute to this discussion, but alas, he has not been invited to speak.

Commencement is a ritual. It takes place in the realm of the sacred, apart from the everyday, “profane” world of getting and spending, debating and politicking. In the sacred world, we emphasize unity, solidarity, and similarity.  That’s the symbolism of the event.  No individual fashion statements, just everyone wearing the same plain caps and gowns. The stadium or auditorium or whatever is festooned with the school colors, the colors that represent all of us. The message is that we’re all here together, members of the Our Uni* community.  There’s a time and place for provocative, challenging, and divisive speeches, preferably a setting where people can respond and ask questions. Graduation ain’t it. 

We accept this restriction at other rituals. At a funeral, we do not want the eulogist to challenge our positive views of the deceased. At a wedding, surely there are reasons to worry about fault lines in the terrain the couple is standing on, but we don’t want the best man, in his toast, to point out any inconvenient truths. 

Read Egan’s column and note the speakers he selects as some of the best from the recent past – Steve Jobs, David Foster Wallace, Stephen Colbert.  None of these, to judge by the key quotes Egan selects, had a political edge or promoted one side of a controversial issue.  They all offered something that the seniors could admire together, ponder philosophically together, or laugh at together. 

Since rituals are about group solidarity and the symbolism of unity, what the speaker says may be less important than who the speaker is. The university is not just asking someone to make a good speech; it is bestowing an honor. The question is not whether the person should be heard, it’s whether the university should honor that person on behalf of the entire community. As Egan says,
The foreign policy that Rice guided for George W. Bush — two wars on the credit card, making torture a word associated with the United States — was clearly a debacle. Contemporary assessments were not kind, and history will be brutal.
Rutgers students, if they are interested, can read her book or transcripts of her lectures. But surely we can understand why many graduates – maybe even more than a small knot – might not want their graduation ritual to extend her its benediction.

For our graduation speaker this year, the administration chose author James Patterson. 

I have heard some grumbling, especially among faculty in the English department. Their complaints have nothing to do with what Patterson might say. Instead, they are concerned that the school is honoring a writer whose presence would never grace their syllabi. (On a campus discussion forum, one contributor referred to him only as Paperback Writer.)

Of course, there are worse things for graduation than a divisive speaker or an airport paperback author. Egan mentions “broiling sun.” Cold and rain, our fate last year, can be just as bad.


* In My Freshman Year, Rebekah Nathan (aka Cathy Small) gives her school the pseudonym Any U, echoing its true identity, NAU (Northern Arizona University). My favorite made-up name for a generic school comes from Montclair prof David Galef: U of All People.

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