NOTHSTINE: Finding truth in the sea of commencement addresses


University commencement addresses should be a time for delivering desperately needed words of wisdom or just plain truth to graduates. Many thought leaders use the occasion to address cultural problems, offer political statements, or perhaps glean even higher truths. President Donald Trump offered a poignant line at Liberty University on Saturday when he declared, “In America, we don’t worship government, we worship God.”

To Trump’s credit (and his speechwriters), it was a great line, and certainly one students outside of the conservative and evangelical campus in Lynchburg, Virginia need to hear more. Not surprisingly, one of the main problems of many commencement addresses is that they offer affirmation from ideological apparatchiks who reinforce prevailing campus groupthink. Just look at the commencement speaker lists at most major universities: they usually offer up a spattering of homogeneous thought — especially regarding culture and politics.

Now that there is a Republican over the executive branch, there are inevitably a few more commencement address from cabinet officials sprinkled in that may stray from the academic bubble.

One truly embarrassing moment occurred last week at Bethune-Cookman University, when the school’s president interrupted the address by Betsy DeVos, the current secretary of education. The president tried to restore a semblance of decorum while DeVos was mercilessly heckled and disrespected despite offering non-controversial remarks largely devoid of anything political. It was a pitiful look for the historically black college, and another reminder of what many institutions of higher learning have now become. However, the school receives some credit for upholding and defending the invitation, since most universities pathetically crumble now to any pressure to oust a speaker who strays from the herd’s preferred ideology.

When they are less political, many addresses might focus on humor or pour on platitudes about the graduates “inner awesomeness,” or predicting that “this will be the generation that cures cancer,” while ignoring the cancers of the soul. “Having a closet full of shoes doesn’t fill up your life,” offered Oprah Winfrey to this year’s graduating class at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.

But there is an ability to go even deeper than stating the obvious or mere platitudes like “go and change the world.” One of the more brilliant addresses occurred at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Anthony M. Esolen, a professor of English, rightly denounced modern commencement addresses as devoid of truth and essentially full of individualistic secular fluff. Esolen, who taught at and earned an M.A. and Ph.D. from UNC Chapel Hill, left Providence College in Rhode Island after being sidelined for offering up criticisms of the Catholic college’s march to embrace a deeply secular understanding of diversity. “We are full of ideology these days but less so of ideas,” declared Esolen. The professor challenged students to not aspire to change the world, since human nature remains fundamentally unchanged, but to “remember the true order of things, the good things.” He implored students to look at the world today and “turn instead from unreality to reality,” a definite criticism of what he believes to be a false and inauthentic age. “Beg instead for the grace of God, that you may be changed by that grace,” added Esolen.

But Hillsdale College has been going against the grain for over 170 years and they almost always offer great commencement addresses. Last year at that school, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas delivered inspirational remarks on the necessity of freedom and responsibility, as well as faith and reason.

Perhaps one of the most important commencement addresses of the last few years came from a figure generally applauded by the left. In the 2014 commencement address at Harvard University, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wisely called out the censorship at America’s colleges and universities. Just two years later, Bloomberg was booed by some at the University of Michigan for heaping up some criticism of “microagressions,” “safe spaces,” and “trigger warnings” to demand censorship. That alone proves that the greatest commencement speeches today not only challenge popular perceptions, but also deliver truth.


Ray Nothstine is a member of the North State Journal’s editorial board, separate from the news staff. Unlike other newspapers, the North State Journal does not publish unsigned editorials; the author or authors of every editorial, letter, op-ed, and column is prominently displayed. To submit a letter or op-ed, see our submission guidelines.


Please let us know how we are doing.

Fill out my online form.