As others have done for more than a century, the graduating class of Spring Hill College processed together beneath the ancient trees lining the Avenue of the Oaks this past Saturday. Spring Hill, owned by the Society of Jesus (a Catholic order of professed religious men better known as “Jesuits”), is a venerable institution of higher learning founded by Bishop Michael Portier in 1830. Among Jesuit colleges and universities (of which there are 27 in the US), Spring Hill is the third oldest.
The sturdy oaks under which we walked were planted by Roger Stewart, a Scotsman who came to the United States in the 19th century and who went into the cotton business. He also built the Greek-Revival (c. 1850) style house at the end of the Avenue of the Oaks, before which the commencement stage is erected each year by hard-working college staff. As a member of the faculty I am always impressed with our commencement exercises … and, of course, I’m always guaranteed a great seat for the festivities!
Though the morning was a bit muggy, the weather was nearly perfect for early May. Faculty and graduates processed in academic regalia, recreating the great university traditions of medieval Europe, while parents and guests sat excitedly nearby. The primary commencement speaker was the Hon. Sonja Bivins, a 1985 graduate of the college who now serves as a federal magistrate judge for the Southern District of Alabama. Her address was a bit long, but its solid values and occasional lightheartedness held the attention of those in attendance. As she wrapped up her comments with a plea that her audience always respect a summons for jury duty, I found myself thinking that hers might be among the very best graduation speeches I’ve ever heard.
Near the end of the ceremony came the annual speech known as the Senior Class Oration. This curious tradition has been around for some time at Spring Hill, and the speaker is always chosen from the graduating class. One can never be exactly sure about what will emerge as part of this presentation, but it usually offers a bit of levity framing a valuable moral lesson or a wise admonition about the future, or about the value of not forgetting lessons learned and friendships earned in the past. In my humble opinion, this year’s senior oration was, well, in a word, a spectacle. It was offered by Mr. Brock Philip Boone.
Recognizing that the date was May 5th, the speaker began with a round of awkward witicisms equating the celebration of Cinco de Mayo with the enjoyment of tequila and Corona beer. Margarita guzzling and beer drinking, of course, are found only in the American version of this Mexican holiday. Mexicans mark the date soberly as they recall the surprising victory of Mexican forces over their French overlords on May 5, 1862. He then hurled a stereotypical insinuation at another of the Christian colleges in the Mobile area before steaming boldly into the main body of his commentary. From this point what had been tasteless became offensive.
In a rant worthy of the Occupy Wall Street movement, he effectively drove a metaphorical dagger through the heart of goodwill that inspired the day. He could have challenged us to rise above political differences to address the challenges of our time, but he chose to divide us instead. Loaded with expressions of pop economics and inspired by only one wing of our nation’s rich political spectrum, the allocution railed against the unfairness of our capitalistic economic system in a manner that, in my opinion, would have thrilled the heart of Karl Marx himself.
If the ultimate goal of a college commencement is not just to celebrate a milestone, but to demonstrate that a new group of critical thinkers has been sent into the world, then this display was a miserable failure. If our goal is to produce strong, independent minds capable of moral judgements while maintaing dialogue with those of other opinions, this speech demonstrated the exact opposite. It contained very little–if anything–of critical value with regard to actually solving the problems that presumably inspired it.
The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities publishes an occasional magazine called Conversations. A few months ago a professor at one of our Jesuit colleges published a small commentary there in which he challenged his fellow faculty to reflect upon the job we are doing as we teach our students to be people of justice. I’m sorry that I didn’t keep that article, because his point has now come home to me through this distasteful experience. He was quite sure that we college faculty are able to produce graduates who know how to protest and complain. But will they use critical skills, reflective judgment, and wisdom to construct a world of justice?
That is a question worth asking.
To the great credit of Spring Hill, I have it on good authority that the speech as it was given was not the speech that was approved. Nonetheless, if it is any indication of the depth of critical awareness being applied by college graduates to issues of economics, poverty, and justice, then it seems clear to me that we college professors have much more work to do.