This was originally posted on Facebook as a Note on July 5, 2008.
(This was written during and after my brother’s graduation ceremony, which was nearly a month ago. I left in the references to “today’s ceremony” but made some minimal revisions and added a few parenthetical comments.)
Commencement exercises (I generalize from the four or so I have seen) are generally attended by–and, even more so, performed by–“persons unclear on the concept,” to varying degrees. A ceremony of particular solemnity is marked by more raucous noise than music of solemn silence, and a day of bittersweet if not Pyrrhic triumph sees few speeches looking back even to see how far the class has come, and none that give the proper respect for what has been lost. The future is presented as if it were of unblemished brightness due to the special, even unique, merits of the class. The trouble with the tests used to produce the metrics showing that this class is superior to every other class in recent history is that the tests are being rewritten to show precisely that result. If, as today’s speaker said, more than half the class was on the honor roll at least once, is it not possible that grade inflation has done to that former honor what it once did to the high school diploma and various other liberal monetary policies did to the dollar? And if this class performed more “service projects” than any other, is that not because such projects are now generally mandatory?
The class president, in his address to the graduates, said, “Don’t make it a sad moment, because it’s not,” and quoted a poem to the effect of “The only person you must make certain to please in your life is you.” He is wrong on both counts. (And, since from something else he mentioned in his speech it is reasonable to conclude he at least claims to be a Christian, he should have known better.) Even a babe at birth is justified in weeping for the loss of something. And in the end, Christ is the sole man whose opinion ever counts. The valedictorian, on the other hand, was both witty and generally correct in numbering humility among the primary ingredients of success. Her only fault lay in her definition of humility–as “not thinking of yourself more highly than any other” rather than “more highly than you ought.” And that distinction is crucial. To take her definition to its logical conclusion would require the affirmation that Christ was not humble, and that by requiring humility the Church requires me to believe the demonstrably false idea that in every category for which objective measurement is possible I am at best as good as everyone else despite objective proof to the contrary. In what truly matters in the long run the difference the standard and any person (save only the Christ) is so great as to make differences between individuals seem negligible (and impossible to measure anyway, besides the fact that he who has kept the whole Law but broken is smallest precept has broken the whole thing), but that is not the same thing. As Lewis writes, humility is the matter of loving myself while grieving the fact that it is my self.
I mentioned music earlier, as something, like solemn silence and most unlike raucous noise, appropriate at commencement exercises. It is a sign of the times–i.e. a tragedy–that the most listenable music in today’s ceremony was almost without exception the processional and recessional, both of which are fixed by tradition. The only musical “tribute”–vocal or instrumental–more than barely listenable was the newly-tradition setting of the Aaronic benediction. Both the pop song quasi-arranged for choir and the “modern” “classical” program piece for band were worse than any in recent memory, and that’s saying something. (The choral piece in my own graduation ceremony was an arrangement of what is perhaps the piece of classical music most overplayed in the present era, Pachabel’s Canon in D, with a mediocre-at-best if possibly heartfelt text typical of certain stripes of at-least-ostensible Christianity of the past few generations.) The music for such a ceremony should be listenable, with solemn joy,and a je ne sais quoi best represented by my favorite setting of Christina Rossetti’s “Remember.”
In summary, many, if not most, people associated with graduation exercises are to varying degrees–and some completely–“persons unclear on the concept.” A day of special solemnity–and joy tinged with sorrow and especially nostalgia–is treated by the vocal fraction of the audience as a photo opportunity-cum-sporting event. Behavior–or music choices–that would almost never be tolerated at a funeral or a wedding–I say “almost never” because these are, rightly, more determined by human choice than tradition than commencement exercises–should not be used at a graduation ceremony.