Oprah Winfrey spoke at Harvard University’s commencement last Thursday. Perhaps the graduates of America’s most elite university really learned something from such gems as “there is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in a different direction,” which the Queen of Talk scattered among them. Perhaps she was right and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harvard Class of 1821, wrong when he wrote “ONE thing is forever good; That one thing is Success.” Whatever. Oprah’s rich! Listen to her!
Harvard’s handing over of its storied commencement stage to a daytime television talk show host is only the most high-profile in a long and shameful tradition of universities treating their graduates like small children by treating them to inane commencement speakers.
This year none was so bad as Villanova putting the actor who played Big Bird on stage to inspire its graduates in 2004. Actors Ed Helms and Robert Redford, though, both gave college commencement speeches this year. Last year comic actor Steve Carrell addressed the graduates of Princeton, alma mater of James Madison and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Oh, what they might have written of that.
Fame is qualification enough for becoming an American university commencement speaker. Emerson knew something of this shallowness. “I hate this shallow Americanism which hopes to get rich by credit, to get knowledge by raps on midnight tables...” he wrote in his essay, “Success.” “They think they have got it, but they have got something else,—a crime which calls for another crime, and another devil behind that; these are steps to suicide, infamy and the harming of mankind. We countenance each other in this life of show, puffing, advertisement and manufacture of public opinion; and excellence is lost sight of in the hunger for sudden performance and praise.”
And our universities are bathing our children in this shallow Americanism as their rite of passage into the real world.