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Of mortarboards and minutia: a longitudinal study of student commencement addresses at Brown University.

For the better part of the twentieth century, student speakers at their graduations from Brown University greeted fellow seniors and guests with substantive, socially conscious addresses. Undergraduate orators used the opportunity to expound on fundamental social questions, frequently discussing politics, academia, human progress, and the responsibilities of college graduates. Yet, more recent commencement addresses have tended toward the humorous and self-referential, divorced from concerns beyond the university gates. Even when contemporary speakers have groped for substance, the result typically has been vapid platitudes or nostalgia for the minutia of college life. The past century saw not a gradual decline from sober to sappy but instead a sudden and enduring transition in the late 1970s.

This study considers the consequences of these trends for generational consciousness among undergraduates by surveying a century's worth of student graduation speeches at Brown--from the turn of the twentieth century to that of the twenty-first. Brown is uniquely situated for this kind of rhetorical-historical analysis because of its longstanding and uncommon practice among premiere universities of exclusively featuring student speakers rather than celebrities, politicians, or public intellectuals at its commencement exercises. One might argue that as an Ivy League institution, Brown may not offer a representative sample of any given generation. Indeed, Brown is useful as a case study precisely because it allows for a focused inquiry into how the nation's young elites, at their crucial transition from top-tier universities to high-status professions, have understood themselves in relation to their world. Even with this limited scope of investigation, a series of speeches from a single institution cannot, of course, lay bare fully the mindset of America's rising leaders on the brink of adulthood. Still, what follows is an initial step--one with conclusions that contradict much of the existing commentary.

This study runs counter to scholarship that suggests "Millennials" (born 1983-2003) are more deeply engaged in issues of civic concern than were earlier generations. For instance, Neil Howe and William Strauss (2000) believe that older generations unfairly assume that Millennials exhibit "selfishness in personal manner" and "apathy about politics." "How utterly depressing," they lament. "And how utterly wrong" (6-7). Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber (2008) similarly maintain that Millennials "believe in the greater good and are ready to dedicate themselves to achieving it" (6). Morely Winograd and Michael Hais (2011) subscribe to a model in which a "Civic Generation" emerges every eighty years. Although subjected to "periods of intense stress and turmoil," a Civic Generation is nonetheless "focus[ed] on resolving societal challenges and building institutions" (13). The Millenials, insist Winograd and Hais, are such a generation. My study argues that just the opposite is true--Millennials (as well as their immediate predecessors, Generation X, born 19651982) have been less rather than more focused on civic responsibility than prior generations.

Whereas the foregoing works tend to draw sharp distinctions between Gen X and Millennials (with the latter supposedly more engaged than the former), my investigation sees continuity. Brown's commencement speeches indicate that Gen X and Millenials exhibited similar levels of apathy. My study is not the first to find little meaningful change in generational attitudes since the 1970s. According to Kali H. Trzesniewski and M. Brent Donnellan (2010), "today's youth seem to be no more egotistical than previous generations" (69). However, when Trzesniewski and Donnellan reference "previous generations," they only go back far enough to include those who would have graduated from college after the 1970s. Thus, there is no comparison between, say, Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) and later generations. While I agree that there is consistency between Gen X and Millennials, I argue that the generations prior to Gen X were less egotistical than were their successors. In other words, there was a meaningful generational schism, but it divided the Baby Boomers from Gen X rather than Gen X from the Millenials.

Founded in 1764, Brown can trace its tradition of student speeches to its earliest commencement exercises. Graduating classes were originally small enough that each student was afforded an opportunity to address the audience. However, as the size of the student body enlarged, this practice became infeasible. By the turn of the twentieth century--when this study begins--the student who won the school's Gaston Prize for Oratory spoke at commencement (Mitchell 1993, 158-9). Today, student speeches remain the central feature of the Brown graduation, with two senior speakers selected by a faculty committee. A study of a century's worth of these addresses reveals a substantive concern for civic affairs into the 1970s, including the obligation of the academy and its graduates to promote a better society. By way of contrast, speeches since that time have been largely devoid of interest in the larger world, or an ethic of noblesse oblige.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, commencement speakers grappled with the viability of Western Civilization in the face of war, depression, and totalitarianism. The first signs of this intellectual unrest became manifest in the wake of the First World War as Russia fell to Communists and Europe lay in ruins. In 1921, William Hall noted that the international community expressed little interest in maintaining a durable peace, lamenting that "the purpose of the world seems little changed--it is still self-aggrandizement." The following spring, Frederick Brack demonstrated similar disappointment in the Allied Powers, but more strongly feared the implications of Bolshevism in the United States. "It is doubtful," mused Brack, "if our workers have any clearer conception of social responsibility than those already in power." George Hunt's 1924 address to his fellow seniors suggested that "the present chaotic condition of Europe" fell far short of the "utopian" vision offered by Woodrow Wilson in 1917. Rather than basking in the "Roaring Twenties," these students expressed profound doubt about the integrity of Western democracy.

As the materialism of the twenties gave way to the economic stagnation of the thirties, commencement speakers questioned the staying power of laissez faire. Representing his class at the 1933 graduation, Edward Quillan observed that while "some of our people have no income or not enough to buy what they really need," the few wealthy citizens are left to invest in a system whose "productive capacity is already over-built." "Is not our problem then," asked Qullian, "one of redistributing these incomes?" Alfred Joslin echoed this left-leaning ethic two years later when he argued that only "planned social insurance" could adequately safeguard "our aged, our infirm, and our sick" and "alleviate the distress caused by unemployment."

Soon Hitler's army became a serious threat to international peace, and student concerns about the economy extended to the whole of society. "The world is witnessing the collapse of the structure of international law and morality," warned Frank Licht in 1938. Months prior to America's official declaration of war, H. Eliot Rice condemned Europe's "all-out civilian war" of "self-annihilation." After the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, graduation speakers sought to temper cynicism with constructive ideas about postwar planning. Anticipating the Cold War in 1943, Irving Rubin rejected the notion that America and the Soviet Union should divide Europe between their oppositional economic schemes. "The compromise," Rubin pleaded, "must consist of taking the best elements from each of the two forms and welding them into one." As Rubin's vision of a united Europe deteriorated, Robert Boole's 1945 oration rejected the "totalitarian, purely negative, non-economic society of unfreedom and inequality" endemic to the USSR. Yet, even for those students who accepted America's need to fight, their embrace of its mission was one of realism, not idealism.

A general interest in political affairs and hesitancy about Western society continued to define student commencement addresses into the 1950s. In the midst of the Red Scare, George Bray praised Communism for having "taken the step that three hundred years of rationalism have not dared to take." By upholding mankind as the ultimate existential end, Bray continued, Communism offered a stark "contrast [with] democracy," which "offers no positive belief oriented to the problems of life." David Ellenhorn's 1958 speech highlighted the perverse irony that the crusade to protect American freedoms from Communism often entailed curbing those freedoms through government intrusion into citizens' lives. "As a result of our fear of Communism," Ellenhorn predicted, "we will allow ourselves to destroy our own liberties." The traditional image of the complacent and prosperous fifties is conspicuous by its absence in this decade's orations.

As the tumult of the sixties accelerated, commencement speakers used their time at the podium to voice an intensifying disillusionment with the world beyond Brown's campus. Joel Cohen, reeling from the Cuban Missile Crisis, expressed sincere doubt that his "children will survive to maturity. I expect them to be killed in an atomic war." In Cohen's fatalistic vision, mankind is simply biding time before it inevitably "commits collective suicide." Deborah Glaser's 1967 speech betokened the same lack of faith in American polity that resounded in graduation addresses since the First World War. "Democracy and self-determination," suggested Glaser, "are tending to become emotional cliches, conditioned stimuli which evoke a conditioned response--unquestioning obedience."

Student cynicism climaxed in the late sixties and early seventies. On the heels of the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., Jerry Hausman suggested that "the same destructive forces which underlie the war in Vietnam" also "nourish racism in the United States." For Hausman and his peers, America's ills were symptomatic of a fundamentally broken society. In 1969, Ira Magaziner, who designed Brown's elective curriculum and would later serve as a senior advisor in the Clinton Administration, found hope in neither society's existing power structure nor an increasingly militant counterculture. "We find ourselves wedged between a society we believe has lost its vitality and its values," he lamented, "and an increasingly large movement which is born of frustration and which has begun to lose its ideal in trying to struggle to completely change that society." Magaziner then led his fellow graduates in turning their backs on National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger--invited to receive an honorary degree--in protest of the Vietnam War. Undergraduate speaker Laura Geller addressed the concerns of "Secondwave Feminism" in 1971 when she noted that more than twice as many men as women would receive Brown diplomas that morning. The only conclusion to draw, asserted Geller, is that "it is more than twice as important to educate men as women." From the Great War through the Vietnam War, student commencement speakers at Brown consistently addressed fundamental political questions, challenging the viability of democracy, capitalism, and even society itself.

If politics constituted the primary concern of graduation orators into the seventies, then the role of academia in national affairs was a close second. Time and again, students used commencement as an opportunity to reflect on the means by which the ivory tower could better serve its host society. Typifying the Progressive Era spirit, James Barry called upon the nation's scholars to immerse themselves in municipal problems. "The first duty of the scholar," Barry informed the class of 1902, "is to use his efforts to secure the election to office of honest capable men, to root out corruption, and wrench the control of municipal politics from the ward boss and the professional politician." In another instance, in 1936, Theodore Tannenwald's plan for world peace entailed situating "Peace Studies" as the focal point around which colleges design their curricula.

Other students were less sanguine than Barry and Tannenwald, and admonished the academy for hyper-specialization. For instance, Charles Hughes's 1937 address, entitled, "We, the Specialists," dismissed a Brown education as "lopsided and trivial." Thirty years later, Bruce Ross revived Hughes's critique. "To what extent," questioned Ross, "are we willing to sacrifice our search for understanding of ourselves and our human situation in order to satisfy our ambition in our particular field of interest?" For Ross, specialization served to divorce academics from a unifying sense of humanity. Yet, not all students viewed specialization as a source of weakness. Hausman's disenchanted oration in 1968 pointed toward academic expertise as a potential antidote for societal ills. If there "is no more well-informed body of expert opinion than a university community," advanced Hausman, then the onus lies on that community to remedy pressing social issues.

In addition to the implications of specialization, student speakers were also concerned about the university's sense of its own mission. In 1940, David Carlson admitted of his peers that most "have only the vaguest notion of what the purpose of higher education is." Daniel Donovan's 1951 address struck a similar chord, pointing toward "swarms of graduates who can't give you a ghost of a reason why they should have spent four years of their life at college." For Joel Cohen, still shaken from the Cuban Missile Crisis, this absence of purpose constituted a serious threat to the human race. His commencement speech indicted the academy as a refuge from reality that had ignored "the more difficult problem of the approaching apocalypse." Whether concerned about the role of the scholar, academic fragmentation, or the university's mission, students continually addressed the meaning of academia in a broad social context.

The relationship between science and humanity joined politics and academia as a favorite topic of graduation orators before the late seventies. In 1936, for example, Albert Tabor expressed anxiety that material progress had eclipsed humanistic development. While we had expanded our "understanding and control of nature," Tabor conceded that "in the field of human relationships such advances have not been made ... man has not yet learned to cooperate with his fellow men." The next spring, William Hulbert compared society to a pubescent teenager: "physically developed, but nervously still a child." Before the class of 1939, Arthur Brown suggested that against the backdrop of technological prowess, "we still know very little about what makes up human nature and we know less about how to control it."

World War II only served to reinforce the undergraduate sentiment that science had dangerously outpaced humanity. Rice's 1941 address noted pithily that "man's intellect has conquered the world but it cannot control man." Following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joseph Weisberger submitted with resignation that "the minerals of the earth, the sea, the invisible energies, [and] the air are" man's "servants," but "he, himself, is the slave of his own weaknesses." Strachan reiterated this idea three decades later in more abstract prose. Though replete with "purposeful knowledge," the human race, he opined, lacks "that knowledge of the dance--the aimless--beautiful knowledge." Throughout these years, commencement speakers articulated their fears that scientific innovation had served to abrogate rather than facilitate man's control over his own destiny.

Graduation orators prior to the 1970s also consistently recognized that social responsibility attended the privileges of elite education. That advantaged status was not lost on Charles Aldrich, who insisted in 1894 that "the few who are blessed with this special advantage" of a Brown education are responsible for "those who toil in poverty." At a time when civic leaders were not necessarily college-educated, James Barry made a plea to the class of 1902 to elect fellow degree-holders to public office. "Experience is indeed the best teacher," Barry conceded, "but experience finds in the educated man far more plastic material to fashion." For Barry, a liberal education imparted the flexibility of mind requisite for proper governance. Ivory Littlefield's 1909 address expressed his anxiety that "the Multitude has strangled literature and morals" and exalted the upper class as a cultural arbiter that would temper the whims of the masses. These Progressive Era speakers were highly conscious of the power they stood to inherit as "college men" and believed themselves ready to assume the concomitant moral responsibility.

In the depths of the Great Depression, graduation orators continued to stress obligation as a theme. "College is worthless," stated Harold Seidman in 1934, "if it does not enable us to promote the welfare of those less fortunate than we." Three springs later, William Hulbert considered the college-bred class to be the last best hope for world peace. "The only thing which can prevent chaos," Hulbert advanced, is "trained, farsighted, yes, visionary leadership by the graduates of our institutions of higher learning." Students considered postwar planning even before the cessation of hostilities, and Irving Rubin suggested in 1943 that, as "the ones who have had the benefits of education," the burden of creating a durable world order fell upon college graduates.

Commencement speakers of the immediate postwar years continued to accept, at least nominally, responsibility for the welfare of the less educated. In the quest to temper scientific gains with a renewed sense of humanity, Joseph Weisberger implored that "we who have had the advantage of a liberal education should be the logical champions to snatch up the gauntlet in the struggle to come." At the 1948 graduation, Robert Day shared his conviction that the near certain affluence following a college education should not breed complacency within America's patrician class, offering: "The man in his easy chair is as dead as the man in his coffin." Arthur Demaris in 1950 thought that only the college elite could reverse the infringement of civil liberties of the McCarthy Era. "If we, the graduating class of an American university," questioned Demaris, "are devoid of hope, lacking in ambition, and scornful of ideals, where, I ask, where else in this world can we hope to find these qualities?" In his 1953 oration, George Bray informed his classmates that, "as a form of intellectual elite, we bear a greater responsibility than do others. By virtue of our education we have been given knowledge and ability to solve our problems intelligently." Within a generation, the theme of elite responsibility would vanish from commencement speeches.

After decades of socially engaged student speeches, undergraduate commencement addresses opted for levity over gravity beginning in the late 1970s. Despite contemporary crises such as inflation and the Iranian Revolution, John Youkilis suggested in 1979 that, "unlike ten years ago, we have no clear-cut rights or wrongs about which we can vociferously protest." This was a generation either unaware of or unmoved by national and global crises. It is not surprising, then, that speeches since the 1970s often featured personal anecdotes. Lee Busabos, for example, shared with the class of 1993 a long-winded story about a romantic pursuit who refused his advances. "I still remember my freshman year crush," Busabos recalled with longing, "She was angelic, deliriously radiant--the look of a woman in love." Unfortunately for him, she was in love with someone else. The following year, Russell Curley was equally limited in scope, recollecting his experiences on the Brown track team. Moreover, Martha Lackritz's 2003 oration recalled the speaker's part-time job for the university. These self-referential anecdotes are particularly striking because not one student before the 1970s cited a personal story in his or her speech.

If an emphasis on personal anecdotes divided commencement orators of the past few decades from their predecessors, then the use of humor also set them apart. At the 1986 commencement exercises, Timothy J. Nelson delivered a meditation on his enjoyment of comedy. Though his speech was not itself humorous, he assured his audience of the power of comedy to trivialize world events, "especially in a world with problems so hilariously absurd as ours." Other students attempted to induce rather than reflect upon laughter. In 1988, Heather Liddell declared that, "even though we've completed our work at college, I'm hesitant to state specifically what it is we'll do, or more to the point, which banks we'll work for." Though intended as a joke, Liddell's comment bespoke a sober truth about her peers' careerist tendencies. Jennifer Wilcha's 1990 speech--entitled "Ominous Poultry"--offered a confession that she was "not qualified" to address "the big issues: life, death and global peace." As an alternative, she elected to expound on her "younger brother's fear of killer chickens." Though Wilcha was facetious in admitting a deficiency to discuss "big issues," she was in fact stating explicitly what her generation's speeches conveyed implicitly.

When student speakers of more recent years did attempt a more serious tone, it typically degenerated into vacuous platitudes. Valeri T. Tutson offered the most syrupy comment in a century of undergraduate orations when she affirmed that "we do have the ability to move mountains, however big or small they may be." In prose without clear meaning, Justin Carroll informed the class of 1997 that, "Brown is a good place. Brown is warm, and breathing, and growing. Brown is us."

Just as the use of platitudes in recent commencement orations offer a stark contrast to an earlier era of graduation speeches, so too did the frequent nostalgia for the minutia of college life. Heather Campbell typified this kind of longing when she reminisced about the following list of quotidian events: "Then, there's always Dr. Ruth, computer printouts, study breaks, Spring Weekend, ultimate Frisbee, a class or two, and study breaks, the SciLi [i.e. Science Library], the Rock[efeller Library], [and] study breaks." In elaborating on the title of a 1989 address, "What Will We Remember," Charles McCracken's nostalgia took on a decidedly culinary tone as he suggested, "whether we've eaten it or not we'll remember the turkey tetrazzini, pot roast au jus and the grease of the Silver Truck." In 1992, Eric Rothaus boasted that Brown students were skilled in "choosing [our] classes so [we] don't have to wake up before ten" and "balancing our lives and sleep schedules (four hours a night isn't so bad, and if I sit in the back of the classroom, maybe I can sleep with my eyes open)." Such levity was wholly foreign to commencement speeches before the 1970s.

Despite the tendencies of the last several decades of addresses to lean toward the humorous, the vapid, and the trivial, a few speakers during this era delivered incisive orations on substantive issues. In the early nineties, Luiz Lopez and Suzanne Rivera gave touching speeches on the plight of the disadvantaged communities from which they emerged. In the presence of her ninety-nine-year-old great grandmother, whose father had been a slave, a student orator in 1994 highlighted the numbers of blacks and Hispanics living below the poverty line despite relative prosperity within Anglo-America in a speech entitled "Who are 'we, the people'? Creating Racial Justice is Now Up to Us." No student more directly confronted the insulated nature of elite universities than the class of 2000's Joseph L. Edmonds, Jr. "It has been the tradition in these United States," he contended, "in our cultural corners and quaint cul-de-sacs that we refuse to talk about our dark moments." Allocutions of this nature were but anomalous blips within an otherwise consistent series of speeches designed to flatter, entertain, or reminisce.

Graduation speeches at Brown did not demonstrate a gradual decline in substance, but rather a precipitous and enduring transition to lighthearted and vacuous content in the late seventies. Undergraduates before this time discussed themes such as politics, academe, and human progress in sober and thoughtful terms, but orations since then point to a student experience inattentive to both topical and enduring social problems. These findings suggest that, among elites at least, there appears to be a meaningful generational divide between those who came of age before the seventies and those who reached adulthood afterward. Additional research would establish whether Brown undergraduates in various eras were representative of other elites and even their respective generations writ large.

Survey data collected nationwide indicate that Brown may well reflect broader trends. Whereas in 1966, only 42.2 percent of college students identified the goal of "being very well off financially" to be "essential or very important," by 1987, the number had climbed to 74.1 percent, where it has held steady since. At the same time that students became more concerned with money, those who placed a premium on "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" plummeted from 85.8 percent in 1967 to fewer than 40 percent by 2003. It is not difficult to see how the ascendance of careerism might correlate with self-referential commencement addresses--both entail a focus on the individual (Pryor et al. 2007, 32-3).

This study hopes to underscore the potential of historical methods in the study of intergenerational change. Social scientists dominate the academic investigation of generational attitudes and frequently rely on statistical analyses of surveys. There is unquestionable merit in these quantitative techniques. Still, a historical approach can complement the work of social scientists. Brown's commencement addresses are often telling for the values and attitudes they unwittingly reveal, providing us insight that student responses to survey questionnaires may not. Moreover, historians can cull beliefs from primary sources in periods of time before survey data was collected. Our methods may lack the vaunted precision of statistics, but for all of its admitted inexactitude, the historical enterprise remains our only recourse for understanding most of the past.

Andrew Porwancher

University of Oklahoma

REFERENCES

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Author:Porwancher, Andrew
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2016
Words:5532
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