Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
When the University of Maryland announced that Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, will deliver this university’s spring commencement address, I was stunned. As my colleagues at the editorial board persuasively argued, Bloomberg’s support for the racist policing practice known as “stop-and-frisk,” mistreatment of women, defense of the Iraq War and much more are good reasons he should not have been selected.
But rather than spending more time asking why Bloomberg was chosen, I’d like to ask a higher-level question: Why do so many large American universities like this one have commencement (and commencement speakers) in the first place?
I am not asking why we grant diplomas — that seems clear enough. Instead, I’m asking about the commencement ceremony. Why do we gather thousands of families and friends into sports stadiums for a procession, some speeches and a commencement address on the same tired themes by some celebrity, billionaire, politician or combination thereof?
There might be an argument for a ceremony like this at schools of a small enough size. A class where everyone knows everyone might get some sense of collective pride from this kind of ceremony. But at this university — and many others — there are literally thousands of people getting their degrees at the same time. It’s depersonalized by necessity.
This isn’t a criticism — teaching huge numbers of people at once is a tremendous achievement, one which this university and the state of Maryland ought to be immensely proud of. But an unavoidable consequence of having 8,000 or 9,000 seniors is that this sense of community drains away. In a ceremony with thousands of people, you’re not excited for your friends, you’re waiting for them to please finish with this boring ceremony so you can get home and get on with your life.
I suspect that commencement ceremonies are pure tradition at this point, and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with tradition, as long as tradition isn’t harmful. But some traditions deserve to die, and I suggest that commencement speakers have given us a reason to kill off the American commencement ceremony.
Commencement speakers are extremely controversial: The pro-free speech Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has a huge list of both left-wing and right-wing attempts to disinvite commencement speakers ranging from the Dalai Lama to Rudy Giuliani to Cardinal Timothy Dolan. I agree with some of these arguments and think some are ridiculous, but that’s beside the point. We can see downsides to these speakers. What are the upsides?
Has anyone ever offered a worthwhile commencement speech? I can already tell you what Bloomberg will say: He’ll congratulate us on our achievements and tell our families how proud they should be. He’ll talk about not getting discouraged in the face of challenge — probably highlighting climate change as an example of such a challenge — and then advise us to be true to ourselves or whatever. He’ll quote Socrates. Or Shakespeare. The point is, it’ll be something we’ve all heard some version of a million times and were probably made to analyze in a high school English class.
And I’m not specifically criticizing Bloomberg here, because everyone who gives a commencement speech gives some version of this speech. You can find plenty of them on the internet. Here’s one by Steve Jobs. Here’s one by David Foster Wallace. Here’s one by President Donald Trump. At some point, we have to ask what the point of all this is.
It’s not like these speakers don’t have a platform. Almost everyone who gets invited to give these speeches is already rich and famous, and besides, it’s 2019 — if you really have something important to say to the world, you can just tweet it or put it on YouTube.
There’s simply no good reason to have this ceremony. Graduation supposedly marks some sort of transition to the “real world,” and whatever the real world is, I’m pretty sure politicians don’t quote Socrates at you every time you accomplish something there. So let’s all be adults and admit these ceremonies are just a huge waste of everyone’s time and money. Mail us our diplomas and move on.
John-Paul Teti is a senior computer science major. He can be reached at email@example.com.