This year's set of commencement speaker squawking has at least sparked a worthwhile question to ask: Just what the heck is that speech supposed to do?
Harry Painter, writing at The Pope Center, outlines some of the issues swirling around this matter after noting that some folks are asking the University of Houston why they are paying Matthew McConaughey $135,000 for about twenty minutes' work. That's kind of ludicrous even by Hollywood standards, even though McConaughey had some interesting things to say when he won his 2013 Academy Award.
Colleges use big-name speakers to help build brand identity, one theory goes, although it can backfire if the profile of the speaker is something that ticks off donating alums. It can also garner some negative publicity when the precious little snowflakes who make up the graduating class believe their graduation experience will be ruined because the speaker espouses causes in which they do not believe or otherwise fails to measure up to some arcane standard of university perfection. Of course, their employment experience after college will be ruined the first time they expect the world to conform to their standards, as employers frequently insist on things being the way they like them. This is if whatever micro-specialized subset of social theory in which they earned their degree allows them to secure employment, that is.
In any event, I think Mr. Painter has a point. My college commencement speaker was then-U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz. The man who spoke to our journalism class diploma ceremony was either a founder or manager of Crain's Chicago Business, a magazine. In addition to not remembering his precise position, I also can't remember his name. Whether or not this had to do with the bottles of champagne we were passing up and down the rows -- it was not a state school and we were all over 21 -- I can't say.
I imagine it really didn't, because the idea that a 20-minute speech would have some application that four years of school hadn't already had seems a bit off. As a pastor who has served in small towns, I am sometimes called on to speak at the local baccalaureate service, and that idea forms the kernel of my usual speech. My key point to them is that, now that they are leaving high school, they should go ahead and leave high school. Because of reruns, I can still get away with reminding them that someone who peaks in high school, like say Al Bundy and his four touchdowns in one game, has more than 50 years to watch other people forget the only thing that has mattered to those who peaked pre-18. If some of them get the idea, great. If not, well, I am rather used to saying things that people don't listen to so well. Either way, the school isn't out a dime and I wouldn't expect them to be.
But for $135,000, I might come up with a new speech. And maybe even go twenty-two minutes.