McDavid: Just a Popularity Contest

by Michael McDavid | 4/28/15 5:44pm

At the Class of 2015’s commencement in June, New York Times columnist David Brooks will receive an honorary degree from the College and deliver the address. Student reactions have been mixed in the days since the news broke. In fact, there have been some strong reactions against Brooks, who some see as an unpalatably conservative voice. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I would never say that this opposition is necessarily wrong or unwarranted, but we should not react disproportionately. A commencement speaker is but a relatively powerful symbol, and the selection of Brooks does not deserve the same level of attention as more substantive issues at the College or in the world.

In many ways, these strong negative reactions are understandable — especially those from graduating seniors. Commencement is the culmination of four years of aspirations, hard work and sacrifice. We want to be able to sit in those little folding chairs on the Green and have nothing but good feelings. On that Sunday — which we pray is sunny and warm, but with Hanover, you never know — many want to be happy, without the complication of disagreeing or feeling uncomfortable. If you disagree with Brooks’ opinions, I still do not believe that your commencement will be ruined by his speech — but another speaker, a figure who is more likely to champion the values that matter to you, might have actively enhanced your experience.

People who voice strong opposition to the selection of Brooks are missing the point. A commencement speaker is, with few exceptions, window dressing. To begin, it would be impossible to secure a speaker who everyone welcomed with enthusiasm. People disagree on many things. Being exposed to a multitude of opinions is a staple of the liberal arts experience, and hearing people with varied viewpoints and beliefs is integral to learning of any kind. Second, the College has no obligation present its students with agreeable ideas. On the contrary, the College would be doing its students a disservice to isolate them from opposing opinions. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the College is not necessarily endorsing Brooks or any of his specific opinions. No one is stamping a seal of approval on his speech or any of his writing. The substance of his honorary degree is minimal.

Yet, I must admit that David Brooks as commencement speaker does not excite me. I am neither a fan nor a supporter of his work. I do not particularly care for his brand of politics and I find aspects of his support of the early days of the war in Iraq troubling. I would undoubtedly be happier with one of his more liberal colleagues. Of course, I would be happiest with the public figure I nominated — my favorite contemporary novelist, Zadie Smith.

Of course, that was never going to happen. Who has ever heard of Zadie Smith outside of the English department — maybe even outside the faculty lounge of the English department? Similar words could be said for many nominated figures. David Brooks is a major contributor for the New York Times, and his words reach millions of people each week. Choosing a commencement speaker is essentially a popularity contest writ large. They are the institutional equivalent of posting your Derby photos on Facebook — the substance matters very little, if at all. Just being there is what counts.

Nothing about commencement besides our emotions are substantial — and that is okay. Most days, we want to be challenged, and we need to have our opinions and beliefs questioned. Graduating from the College, however, means that we have been challenged for the past four years. On commencement day, it’s okay to want to feel good instead of challenged. Sure, every once in a while, a commencement speech has substance. It outlines a plan for post-war Europe or stretches out an olive branch to Nikita Krushchev, but those are the exceptions and not the rules. Commencement is about style, not substance.

As far as window dressing goes, Brooks is a good choice. He shows that the College has enough clout to attract a commencement speaker whose name you have heard. Might he have something interesting to say? Certainly. I would cautiously posit, however, that many writers or critics of less renown would be able to offer just as much in their actual commencement address.

If we are honest with ourselves about the purpose of a commencement speaker, then Brooks is a fine choice. He is palatable to many and enticing to some. He will most likely deliver a perfectly serviceable — if standard — commencement address. I do not applaud the selection, but I hardly shout it down. If after four years we need desperately to learn some inescapable, beautiful truth in our last moments as undergraduates, then the College has failed us in a more meaningful way than picking a speaker we do not like.