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UA should schedule commencement speeches

Matthew Gillham

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The University of Alabama ought to have commencement speeches for graduation ceremonies. Certainly, it could just be an innate longing for four years of my life to be neatly tied in the presentation of some sort of ambiguous, predictable cliché. It could just be to grasp some sort of comfort in the reiterations of words I could find elsewhere on the internet from someone whose success wraps me up in their It’s-All-Going-To-Work-Out blanket. But I posit to you that it’s far more essential to the graduation from university life than that picture presents.

I’ll graduate on May 6, and while dozens of other schools, private and public, have scheduled commencement speakers, the University unfortunately chooses not to.

This year’s upcoming slate of commencement speakers throughout the U.S. includes Condoleezza Rice, Madeline Albright, Sheryl Sandberg, Coach K, Jane Goodall, James Franco, among many others. Most of us have listened attentively to a commencement speech online somewhere, but are they more than the clichés and feel-good lines that can often be associated with the stereotypical commencement speech? And if not an eloquently silly recantation of moving one-liners, what purpose do they serve?

Certainly, there’s an economic and marketing benefit to the University, especially when the speaker is a household name. And certainly commencement speeches can provide a surface-level blanket of comfort. Yet their true significance is most evident in their historical value.

The origin of the commencement speech was difficult to uncover. The earliest recorded date I found of a commencement speech in the U.S. was in 1831 at Harvard University, given by Richard Whately, a British rhetorician and theologian. Commencement speeches are at least as old as the University.

The term commencement speech is a peculiar one. Though its original etymology is debated, commencement, as it’s used in regards to the ceremony, is best reflected in the meaning of the Latin word inceptio, marking the invitation towards and inception of the students into the totality of academic life.

Historically, the outcome of a liberal arts education was the continuation of academic pursuits in researching, teaching, and studying at the university. As such, the speeches at 17th and 18th century ceremonies were not from outsiders, but from the university itself, as the extension of the invitation to join the fellowship of professors there. Hence, universities most likely don’t list these speeches in their archives of commencement speakers, as the president of a university speaking at a graduation carries far less significance now. But make no mistake, these speeches molded, and were the foundation for, the commencement speeches we hear today.

Yet as the role of the university changed in society and institutions began producing students for social roles outside the academic realm, commencement was no longer an invitation to join in on the fellowship of academic life, per se, but into the much broader, vaguely defined, fellowship of the next phase of educated life. (I don’t mean to imply that this is an exclusive fellowship for those who’ve been given the opportunity to go to college. Some of the best commencement speeches are given by people who never attended or graduated. It’s really the most inviting of fellowships, I expect, but you still have to know it exists to join.)

The commencement speech as we know it became the product of this transition. Speakers who have meandered and navigated through the failures and successes of a tumultuous world are given the honor to present the invitation to the newest inductees into life in a post-education world and to represent what the invitation they are receiving might mean.

This is all rather liberal arts-y, one might argue, and the University isn’t a liberal arts institution. Nonetheless, the University is very much in the business of fostering deep thinkers and lifelong learners. So if these speeches do represent this invitation to join the ranks of movers and shakers throughout the world, why don’t we have them?

“Morning Boys, How’s the Water?” is the introduction to my favorite commencement speech, given by David Foster Wallace to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005. It’s his beginning to the classic use of an anecdote, the speaker’s canvas, on which he hopes to illustrate the wisdom of years of rumination and experience. Yet, like the best commencement speeches, it’s far from light-hearted or comforting; it forces the audience to mend the interpretations of the world that they’ve uncovered with the etchings of the speaker’s own experiences. In many ways, it’s indicative of the molding and shaping of opinion and worldview that a self-aware individual must wrestle with for the rest of their lives.

And this molding becomes the very invitation. Undoubtedly, most of us have speeches that uniquely resonate with us. But I long for the speech that is my own personal invitation, the speech that I don’t choose from a list of videos, but the one that’s placed in front of me and says “I invite you, Matthew Gillham, to join me.” On May 6, I regretfully won’t get it. The significance of such an invitation might be lost amidst the graduation hoopla, but it won’t be lost on me.

I wish I could say that Wallace’s portrayal of the greeting of an older fish to two younger fish might hold a special significance beyond the wisdom of its illustration. I can appreciate its craft, its message, even feel a personal connection to it, but the fact of the matter is, I’m only an onlooker.

To the University that’s contributed so much to how I think, I wish you would consider allowing the next phase of life a spokesperson to look us in the eye, tell of struggle and triumph, and reach across an audience of a few thousand with an invitation that’s far more than a sheet of paper.

Matthew Gillham is a senior majoring in economics. His column runs biweekly.

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UA should schedule commencement speeches