Antidotes to Silly Commencement Addresses

So it’s college commencement time, which means graduates are typically subjected to appallingly trite commencement addresses from appallingly trite celebrities whose mediocrity goes unnoticed even when on full live display in front of the new graduates of some of our finest universities. Which may say something about the substantive quality of higher education today.

One antidote is the six-minute video George Will has done this week for Prager University on what graduates ought to be told by a commencement speaker somewhere, but surely won’t:

Has anyone ever given such a sound commencement address? Yes—at least once: Edward C. Banfield, the late Harvard political scientist. You can find the complete text at the Claremont Review of Books, which reprinted Banfield’s address back in 2002 but here’s a flavor of what he told the doubtless shocked graduating class:

A commencement speaker is supposed to know what is wrong with the world, to tell you how to set it right, and to exhort you to do so. Frankly, I am not qualified to do any of these things. Things that appear to others as “crises” often strike me as more or less unavoidable features of a situation that will straighten itself out in time. Most social problems, someone has remarked, cannot be solved in the sense that a puzzle is solved: they may be coped with, or got around, or put up with, but they cannot be solved. Sometimes they have puzzle-like components, but these usually constitute a small, even trivial part of the whole. Besides, we rarely have the knowledge needed to solve such puzzle-like elements of social problems. And when we tinker with complicated social arrangements (and all social arrangements are endlessly complicated), we run a grave risk of making good matters bad and bad matters worse. Even if I knew what is wrong with the world and how to set it right, I would be unwilling to exhort you. Our presence here in these gowns is evidence that we are committed to a most egalitarian principle — that of reasonable discussion. For me to try to persuade you of something on other than reasonable grounds would be to violate this principle egregiously. Besides, exhortation is usually a waste of time. What good would it do for me to urge you to be prudent if you are in fact headstrong? You would heed my advice only if you were prudent to begin with. . .

A tried and true technique of the advice-giver is to restate a problem so as to make it sound like a solution. “The best solution in South Africa,” the Archbishop of Canterbury recently told the press, “would be a radical change of policy and the growth of progressive influence.” This, it seems to me, is on a par with saying that the best solution for the problem of alcoholism would be the growth of temperance. . .

If I were an advice-giver (that is, properly qualified for my present role) I would tell you that one of the world’s troubles is that too much nonsense is talked about public matters — the “crisis” of too much nonsense, I would call it. The solution, I would say, is for people to talk about public matters only when they have something sensible to say — for them to be more reflective, more aware of the complexity of things — in a word, more serious. Then I would urge you to go forth and lead the fight against nonsense. With faith, vision, and hope, I would say — and the expenditure of “massive” sums by the government — the amount of nonsense talked about public affairs in this country can be reduced to tolerable levels within a few years. But, as you will realize, I cannot say any of those things. Nonsensical talk does a great deal of harm, I am convinced of that — but it does not constitute a “crisis.” Indeed it has its good side — values that we all cherish are inseparable from it. If talking nonsense exposed one to ridicule or to some other heavy penalty, many people with a right to feel important would not get to exercise that right; democracy as we know it would be at an end. Besides, the talking of nonsense is inevitable — any “solution” to the problem is itself nonsense.

Banfield gave this, I believe, back in the 1960s or early 1970s. Any commencement address like this today would have to accompanied with multiple trigger warnings, and perhaps with earplugs passed out to the audience.