May 23, 2010
Attending graduation ceremonies from a large public high school has been an interesting experience for me as a parent. First and foremost I find myself filled with pride for my son, Alexander, who has done extremely well and will be heading to the University of Chicago. That said there were a number of things that were odd to my sensibilities.
First we had ‘pre-commencement exercises’. These took place in a Methodist Church on the campus of Emory University. It was referred to by the speaker as a ‘hall’, even as he acknowledged that many such observances would be called a Baccalaureate Service and would be an essentially religious observance with hymns and prayers. That speaker was the University President, James Wagner. His address was unusually substantial for such an occasion. He spoke of ‘the practices of community’ which included such things as honest conversation, being connected and giving for others. He resorted to the use of scripture only once, but for me this served to show how difficult it is to develop a genuine ethic without the idea of God or something that resembles or functions as God in the argument. Alexander is sure that God is unnecessary for such things as humanity or community or our responsibility to one another. I’m not sure whether he thinks such notions are somehow ‘innate’ to humans, but at any rate ethics in such a world seem limited primarily to utilitarianism. I remember reading The Mountain People by Colin M. Turnbull in an introductory course in philosophy as an undergraduate. While the book was somewhat controversial, Turnbull portrayed the breakdown of a people called the Ik from Northern Uganda when their way of life was essentially destroyed. He showed how many of the traits that we like to think of as ‘human’ go out of the window pretty quickly under really extreme and apparently permanent conditions. Certainly the breakdown of any kind of value to ‘community’ came fast and furious for these people.
At the graduation itself I was struck by how well Ms. Donovan, who had been Alexander’s advisor, read the names of more than three hundred students with care and aplomb. I don’t know how many ethnic origins were represented, but it was a truly international group and many of the names were quite challenging for an Anglo. I was quite moved by that reality. I was also struck by the fact that Alexander was wearing a tassel on his shoulders that proclaimed ‘work readinesses. While I don’t’ know what was required to achieve this recognition, I was encouraged anyway. Could a summer job be a possibility? Less encouraging was my unscientific observation that only about a third of the class was sporting a sign of such accomplishment. Third, while I realize that not everyone who begins Druid Hills High School graduates, and while I know that for some this will be the major academic accomplishment of their lives I was strangely revolted and appalled at the whooping and shouting and carrying on of some of the students and their supporters in the Civic Center. This seemed to transcend race and national origin to some extent, but it didn’t seem in keeping with the occasion. Last, I have a friend who believes that there is really only one ‘
Alma Mater’, that it is used everywhere and is universally dreadful. Certainly there was no one on the stage last Friday who seemed remotely enthusiastic about singing it including leading faculty, administrators and students. Thank God (or whomever) for the talents of the Kennesaw Brass Quintet who carried the thing.
The student speeches were, for the most part a highlight. I particularly liked the one by the two salutatorians who with real wit and substance urged us not to be quick to judge others as we might miss some important gifts. It was a good message for the crowd and the occasion. They didn’t put it this way but they came close to saying that prejudice is when we judge a person and discernment is when we judge behavior. Good thoughts for life.