The sunlit season of college commencement has been darkened this year with news of plagiarism1). The school paper at Connecticut College, the College Voice, reported that one of the speakers at last year’s commencement, a graduating senior called Peter St. John, wowed his audience with a speech that had been lifted2) paragraph by paragraph from another commencement address given at Duke in 2008 by the writer Barbara Kingsolver3).
The incident raises all the usual grisly plagiarism questions, some easier to answer than others. Ask why St. John stole another person’s words, and the answer is obvious: He couldn’t come up with a speech on his own, so in a display of bad character, he took what wasn’t his. Ask why, with all the words in the world to choose from, he stole Barbara Kingsolver’s words, and the answer is … I’m stumped. Her Duke speech is a sopping4) thing, wet with cloying5) sentiment and precious6) humor, limp7) with exhausted ideas and easy flattery, an updated version of the Robert Fulghum 1980s gag fest All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten8). In my opinion.
But what do I know? It turns out that among commencement buffs,
Kingsolver’s address has become legendary, a classic. It was a big hit even coming out of the mouth of St. John the word bandit9), who spoke on the same podium as the keynote speaker10), the feminist professor Martha Nussbaum. “St. John’s speech was by far the most well-received of Commencement,” the College Voice noted in its report, “more relatable and persuasive than even Nussbaum’s.” Try being more relatable than Martha Nussbaum. It’s not easy.
As the mists close around the retreating memory of our own commencements, some of us have evidently lost touch with the genre of the graduation day address. Kingsolver’s speech, says Inside Higher Ed, is “a talk that turns up on some lists of the best commencement talks ever.” From what I’ve seen, it turns up on all the lists, usually near the top. They show remarkable unanimity, these top 10 lists, and the speeches they rank are evidence of the shifting nature of generational expectation. In any given era they reveal what people want their children to know as they enter the wider world, brimming with youthful vigor and optimism, eager to make the rest of us feel crapulent11) and obsolete.
In a nod to the past and as a gesture of continuity, every list of the best commencement speeches has a token appearance by at least one dead person. Time magazine, in a list got out last year, was typical in including the address delivered at Harvard by George Marshall12) in 1947 and President Kennedy’s speech at American University in 1963. Marshall used his speech to announce his plan to rebuild the postwar European economy, and Kennedy used his to argue for an international ban on the testing of nuclear weapons.
What strikes you most about these remarks is their elevated tone. To the youthful ear they must sound Victorian in their formality. “I need not tell you gentlemen that the world situation is very serious,” the jowly old Secretary of State rumbled to the Harvard Class of 1947. “I commend all those who are today graduating,” Kennedy said at American, and went on to quote Woodrow
Wilson13)’s assertion that “every man sent out from a university should be a man of his nation as well as a man of his time.”
“I am confident,” Kennedy continued, “that the men and women who carry the honor of graduating from this institution will continue to give from their lives, from their talents, a high measure of public service and public support.”
Both speeches go on to offer an interpretation of world events and to make a fairly complicated argument about what should come next. The words and their seriousness lend the occasion the weight of a rite14) of initiation, with one adult addressing an audience of his freshly minted peers: You’re all grown up now, so your mother and I think you’re old enough to understand what I’m about to tell you. The terms are cordial but not intimate. This was back before the epidemic of first-naming made intimacy mandatory in social interaction and speech. Remarks like these must have served at least to delay the epidemic. It’s not easy to imagine a graduate of 1947 crossing the stage in Harvard Yard, taking his diploma from the Secretary of State, and saying, “Thanks, George.”
Today’s successful speaker, if he is to be relatable, will toss phrases like “men and women” and “ladies and gentlemen” to history’s compost. In my recent studies I may have found the transition point, the moment when “I commend these men and women” became “Hey, you guys.” Anna Quindlen, a former columnist for the New York Times, didn’t use that precise phrase in her commencement address, which is almost Kingsolverian in its popularity. But she did perfectly embody the forced chumminess that speakers are expected to assume in front of the spoken-to, as well as the solipsism15) that underlies it.
“Begin with that most terrifying of all things, a clean slate,” she told Mount Holyoke’s class of 1999. “Then look, every day, at the choices you are making, and when you ask yourself why you are making them, find this answer: for me, for me!”
If you were a graduate today, and you were faced with the choice of listening to a public intellectual like Anna Quindlen or something else, you would do what today’s graduates try to do: choose something else. This is much to their credit. And so they choose TV stars. This is less to their credit, but after four years in the world’s finest system of higher education it’s what they know. Most lists of best commencement speeches include talks by the comedians Conan O’Brien16) Jon Stewart17), and Stephen Colbert18). Time, for its part, inexplicably included a speech by the actor who played that White House political adviser on West Wing19). The balding, red-headed one. He told the class of 2006 at the University of Wisconsin to “be the active hero of your own life.”
The comedians, meanwhile, deliver stand-up20) routines. They offer the graduates a polished and extremely pricey entertainment essentially for free—the cost of an honorary degree; nothing, in other words. Maybe it dawns on21) them that they’re getting taken, because a thin vein of hostility runs through their talks.
“Whenever I hear that song,” Stewart said, after the band played his alma mater, “I think of nothing.” Colbert appeared at tiny Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. In the space of a half hour he managed to insult them by pretending not to know the name of their town, dropping the f-bomb twice in front of the assembled grandparents and moms and dads, and ridiculing the name of their sports teams.
The graduates roared with laughter. They’d seen him on TV.
1. plagiarism [5pleIdVIErIzEm] n. 剽窃,剽窃物
2. lift [lIft] vt.〈口〉剽窃,抄袭
3. Barbara Kingsolver:芭芭拉·金索沃(1955~),美国女作家,著有小说《毒木圣经》(The Poisonwood Bible)。
4. sopping [5sRpIN] adj. 浑身湿透的
5. cloying [5klRIIN] adj. 因过量而(使人)厌烦的;倒胃口的
6. precious [5preFEs] adj. 矫揉造作的
7. limp [lImp] adj. 无生气的,软绵绵的
8. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten:《那些人生中最重要的道理我在幼儿园里都学过》,美国作家罗伯特·福尔格姆的杂文集,由50篇短小的文章组成。
9. bandit [5bAndIt] n. 强盗
10. keynote speaker:主讲嘉宾;大会发言人
11. crapulent [5krApjulEnt] adj.〈喻〉没有价值的
12. George Marshall:乔治·马歇尔(1880~1959),1947~1949年任美国国务卿,1950~1951年任美国国防部长。
13. Woodrow Wilson:伍德罗·威尔逊(1856~1924),美国第28任总统
14. rite [raIt] n. 仪式,典礼
15. solipsism [5sClIpsIzEm] n. [哲]唯我论
16. Conan O’Brien:柯南·奥布赖恩(1963~),美国脱口秀主持人,主持脱口秀“柯南·奥布赖恩今夜秀”(The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien)。
17. Jon Stewart:乔恩·斯图尔特(1962~),美国脱口秀主持人,主持新闻讽刺节目“每日秀”(The Daily Show)。
18. Stephen Colbert:斯蒂芬·科尔伯特(1964~),美国电视节目主持人、喜剧演员,主持电视节目“科尔伯特报道”(The Colbert Report)。
19. West Wing:美国电视剧《白宫风云》,一部以政治为题材的美国电视连续剧
21. dawn on:渐渐明白;开始理解