The two student speeches at graduation yesterday were structured loosely around the usual themes: how nice life had been at college, how scary it was to be leaving, and how the members of the graduating class should forge ahead and make their mark on the world. Given the content of the speeches, though, it is entirely mysterious how this mark is to be made, as for all one could gather they might have spent the last four years at summer camp. Memories of drinking featured prominently, as did sex: the first speaker mentioned her bikini wax in the course of a list of “firsts,” and the second speaker opened with a joke about how he too was going to speak of her bikini wax, with apologies to her boyfriend. (Likely it was this that prompted Eila’s third grade teacher, who had attended the ceremony to see her student helper graduate, to ask me whether I found the speeches “inappropriate.” The word vulgar is no longer in common use.) Neither of them said anything about politics; neither took a stand in any way on any topic whatever. And neither mentioned a class, or a professor, or a book, or an idea.
Part of what accounts for this might be the college’s focus on we used to call extra-curricular education and now call co-curricular education. One could imagine two reasons for changing the term from extra- to co-, the first being to emphasise the interplay between the two, such that ideas in the classroom were discussed and tested on the playing fields, in public debates and lectures, and over beer — and vice versa, with the things they were thinking and experiencing outside the classroom brought up in seminars where they might be reflected on and challenged. But I think the actual reason is simply to imply that what they do outside the class is of equal importance to what they do inside. Which is a short step to more important, or all-important, and in any case severs what should be a meaningful tie.
As I listened to the students speak, I cast my eyes over the list of prize winners at the back of the programme. It was a heartening list. I know these students. Many of them have taken my classes. They are fabulous, smart people. All of them, any one of them, would have given a very different kind of speech. So how are the valedictorians chosen? And could we change the way?