Woodward: A Speaker for the Ages

by Aylin Woodward | 4/20/15 6:03pm

With the dusk of our undergraduate careers looming, there is a growing curiosity among members of the Class of 2015 as to who our commencement speaker will be come June 14. Having had the privilege of attending three of the past four commencements, I’m looking forward to the reveal with great anticipation. Will it be another producer like Shonda Rhimes ’91, the genius behind shows like “Scandal” (2012) and “Grey’s Anatomy” (2005), or perhaps another social justice warrior like Geoffrey Canada, president of Harlem Children’s Zone? I imagine it’s beyond the realm of possibility that we may have the pleasure of hearing someone like Conan O’Brien, the late night television host who spoke in 2011.

Each of those aforementioned speakers’ addresses had its own message and distinct flavor of delivery. Rhimes blew the crowd away last year with her bold and witty remarks, reminding students that it’s time to pay it forward. Canada stoically challenged members of the Class of 2013 to finish the work that his generation had started. And O’Brien... well, he just did what he does best — he made everyone laugh. A lot.

Beyond the clichéd messages commencement speakers often leave with graduates on arguably one of the most important days of their lives, though, I argue that these orators can provide far greater of a service to this College than most imagine. On graduation day, people like Rhimes and O’Brien, who speak from a position of unparalleled prestige and authority that even College President Phil Hanlon cannot match, have a unique social utility — they hold the ear and attention of nearly every member of the Dartmouth community, both past and present. With this undivided attention, speakers have the rare opportunity to unite the school with their outside message and interpretations.

As a writer, I am like a broken record on the subject of improving campus-wide communication, but I refuse to cease that vein of thought just yet. In just these first three weeks of spring term, the quality of civil campus discourse has once again plummeted to record lows. With Alpha Delta fraternity’s derecognition and the hard alcohol ban in full swing, campus climate appears reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia. We seem to have returned to an environment of passive-aggressive hostility and resentment, and it cannot endure.

If we won’t talk about — or perhaps worse, feel as though we can’t talk about — the things that matter to us on this campus — the evolution of our social character, the heartbreaks, the injustices, the skeletons we have in out closets — how can we grow as a community? How can we, the graduating class of seniors, pave the way for a renewal of open dialogue at the College if our path to such dialogue is blocked by overt hostilities and disintegrating channels of student-administrator respect?

My answer to such rhetorical questions is perhaps a sly one. If delivered well, this year’s commencement speech represents a potential catalyst for a much-needed, frank conversation about just what’s been happening on campus as of late — and how such issues can be discussed maturely. If the College has the ability to procure a speaker of merit, with a proven ability to talk about contentious topics affably and open-mindedly, then they need to do so.

I know that a very large chunk of our class nominated comedians, including Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart or John Oliver, to be our speaker. The College may be disinclined to choose “yet another entertainer,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if such intolerant stipulations affect who takes the stage this June. But I would strongly caution against that.

Forget about the need for variation or the intellectual stigma of having an entertainer deliver the commencement address of an Ivy League institution. Dartmouth needs a little bit of good-natured humor right now — a little of bit charisma and panache to enliven a campus drowning in cynics, pessimists and protestors. Maybe someone like Colbert can air out all of our dirty laundry by poking fun at the bad blood that’s been festering here, and, in a way, put our collective hostility to rest by reminding us how to laugh at ourselves and — most importantly — keep it all in perspective.

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