Blair: Contemptuous Commencement
By Peter Blair, Staff Columnist
Published on Wednesday, May 23, 2012
In 18 days, I will be graduating with the Class of 2012. I have many wishes for my last days here. There are many things I have always wanted to do, but I have somehow never found the time for them. One of my greatest hopes, however, relates to the speech I will hear on the day of Commencement. There is one message I would very much like to hear from the speaker. I want her to tell me, and my whole class, that we kind of suck.
Since the first day I arrived at Dartmouth, I have been met with proclamations about my own greatness and the greatness of my class as a whole. Flattery has been pervasive, inescapable. We are among the smartest people in the nation. We are so very talented. We will run the world one day. The future is in our hands. Every official ceremony I have ever attended here has become an occasion for celebrating our collective superiority. A little reflection might suggest that Dartmouth students are among the last people who need their egos stroked, but this has either been unrealized or ignored by the speakers at our ceremonies.
I find this practice problematic. I dislike it because it suggests a certain insecure overcompensation. After all, true greatness does not constantly need to be reassured of itself. This flattery is also problematic because it breeds in us a deep kind of complacency and self-satisfaction that inhibits the growth of important virtues, virtues that we will all surely need one day if we are to occupy all the positions of power Dartmouth seems to think we will.
To be sure, there is a healthy way of invoking my class’ probable future success. Reminding someone of their talents can be salutary as a call to repentance and self-improvement. As Spiderman tells us, “With great power comes great responsibility.” If declarations of our greatness were made solely in order to instill in us a greater sense of our responsibility, they would not bother me.
That kind of discourse might give us some humility and sober awe before our obligations. It might make us pause for a second to consider that we have been gifted far in excess of our merits and that we continually need to work harder to make ourselves worthy of our responsibilities to some degree.
The collective effort of Dartmouth’s self-congratulation has not usually been conducted in this spirit. Rather, we have been petted and fawned over in ways destined to breed pride, not humility.
And I think many of us are sick of it. I suspect that Conan O’Brien’s graduation speech last year was, in part, so well-received because he spoke frankly about failure. A reminder that we all will fail in some way or another was a refreshing break from the endlessly repeated mantras about our probable future success. Likewise, it would be a welcome message to remind graduating seniors that we don’t know as much as we think we do, that we aren’t as good of people as we think we are and that we are not currently worthy of the obligations and responsibilities many of us will assume.
People who flatter us are usually trying to sell us something. In our case, we are being sold on Dartmouth and the value of a Dartmouth education. We are being sold on being future financial contributors to the College. Don’t get me wrong — I love Dartmouth, and I will contribute to it as much as I can financially. But love doesn’t have to be naive. Dartmouth prospers when its students think they are great. To acknowledge defects in the students is to acknowledge defects in the education they have received. So the flattery — which I think is more or less unconsciously adopted — is understandable.
But perhaps Dartmouth could prosper even more if its graduates possessed humility and a realistic grasp of their limits. The world is, at present, hardly suffering from an overabundance of trustworthy and humble leaders. I want to be reminded of my own inadequacy by our graduation speaker. Please don’t tell us we’re awesome just as we are. It’s the last thing we need to hear.