Thursday, June 24, 2021
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Speaking Words of Wisdom

This upcoming weekend Penn State will hold live, in-person commencement ceremonies at Beaver Stadium for the first time in what seems like forever. Starting at noon this Friday with the Graduate School’s master’s and doctoral candidates, and finishing at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday with the College of the Liberal Arts, students will have the opportunity to at least physically be in the same space with their family and friends as they graduate and honor their years of studies. 

Yes, the space might be designed to hold 110,000 yet only be occupied by a few thousand. And yes, each graduate gets only two guests. Oh, and yes, the ceremony won’t include the graduates walking across the stage with an opportunity to flash their distinction cords. But at least it’s a start back to normalcy, right? Well, unless, as the university notes, factors outside of their control, “including changing virus conditions or changes in public health guidelines,” necessitate pivoting to a fully virtual ceremony.

Not to mention the weather. As I write this, the forecast looks good for Friday and Saturday – maybe a little brisk in the 50s and low 60s with a bit of wind – and a less-than-50% chance of rain on Sunday. Let’s all put our minds together and send positive waves into the atmosphere in the hopes of a good day for the graduates and their guests. Many paid good money for this opportunity and should at least get some photos out of the deal.

Which reminds me… as I mention that some people paid good money for these educations, some people at other schools may have paid a lot more. I noticed a little-seen news story on the internet a few weeks ago — about a story that made huge waves in the public’s consciousness two years ago, then disappeared to the proverbial back pages as the COVID-19 pandemic hit – that Mossimo Giannulli is a free man. He was released from “community confinement” on April 16. His wife, actress Lori Loughlin, served a two-month sentence and was released a few months ago. All from the so-called college admissions scandal where they paid $500,000 to get their daughters admitted to USC. It just goes to show the lengths some people will go to get their kids a college degree. 

Back to commencement here in Happy Valley… One of the traditional items that is on the schedule for these starting-to-get-back-to-normal ceremonies is speakers. That’s right, the gloriously stimulating, all-knowing commencement speakers. People who will dispense the good words of wisdom they have learned from their years of life experience and will invigorate, challenge and energize the minds of the new graduates.

As someone who has used these online pages to dispense my worldly advice to the masses, I can certainly appreciate the monumental task these speakers face. Display intelligence, confidence and wit. Speak clearly and interject tonality as needed. Gesticulate firmly, evenly and in concert with the size of the facility. Be mindful of your audience. Appear gracious and honored. Dress appropriately under any university-provided garb. Whew. And it looks so simple, doesn’t it? (The good ones really do make it look simple.)

Here’s something I’ve always wondered about when I think of commencement speakers: What would happen if one of these speakers – people who have achieved success in their field, are admired and idolized – decided to go a little rogue, as it were, with their commencement speech? And not give the traditional positive, rah-rah, work-hard-and-achieve-your-dreams message. Instead they would tell the assembled graduates the “inside scoop” about how to become a success. The things we sometimes think about in the back of our minds but no one ever says. Given the topsy-turvy world of the last year, who knows what might happen out on the commencement stages this spring. 

A well-mannered example of this type of alternate-universe commencement speech advice would be what Paul D. Cravath, the head of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, one of this country’s premier law firms, told a group of Harvard Law School students in 1922: ”Brilliant intellectual powers are not essential; too much imagination, too much wit, too great cleverness, too facile fluency, if not leavened by a sound sense of proportion, are quite as likely to impede success as to promote it. The best clients are apt to be afraid of those qualities.”

How might a modern-day Paul D. Cravath address the members of Generation Z? Throwing decorum to the wind and offering pithy hot takes to explain how things really are? My thought is they might use words crafted by Lewis H. Lapham, the editor of Harper’s Magazine from 1975 to 2006, who wrote them in (I hope) a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Here are a few of his words. We’ll call them Helpful Suggestions On How To Get Ahead.

  • “The resume is the greatest of the American literary forms. Construe your life as a display counter at Tiffany’s and arrange the merchandise accordingly.”
  • “When choosing companions seek out the acquaintance of people richer and more important than yourself, and never take an interest in people who cannot do you any favors.”
  • “Flattery cannot be too often applied. The novice might think that very important people grow tired of hearing themselves praised. The presumption is false. Important people listen to little else except praise. Never miss a cue for the mandatory compliment, no matter how hackneyed or insincere. Hesitation implies doubt, which is insulting.”
  • “Don’t make the mistake of thinking gossip trivial. Like a display of lace or cufflinks, a show of lurid anecdote demonstrates the range of one’s acquaintance among the company of the great. Do not dwell on the details. You wish to convey an air of knowingness, a proof of being in the loop, and if you attempt too elaborate a narrative, you run the risk of getting it wrong. Somebody else may have better information, and you will be seen as a mere reader of cheap newspapers.”
  • “Make unsparing use of clichés. The empty word is the correct word. The agreeable murmur of cliché is always preferable to the expression of strong feeling.”

And finally:

  • “No matter what crimes a man may have committed, variations on the answer ‘Yes, but I did it for the money’ satisfy all but the most tiresome objections.”

Obviously I hope no commencement speakers will be traveling down this road, but I find it entertaining to wonder. What I would want to hear is for these graduates to go forth with good intentions, adjust when needed, be accepting, take responsibility and, above all, enjoy the adventure.

In the meantime, let’s wish all the seniors and grad students a dry and uneventful commencement, and congratulate them as they join the ever-growing legion of Penn State alums. Come visit Happy Valley whenever you can and best wishes on a normal non-alternate-universe life!