Here is a story about a Conn College student plagiarizing a Barbara Kingsolver speech.
The article described the incident as particularly painful to many at the college who had deeply admired the idealistic, gutsy commencement talk and the student selected to give it, Peter St. John, who was described as the kind of person who was used in YouTube videos to promote the campus and whose picture graced admissions publications.
Two points. First, go read the Kingsolver speech. Once you do, you might find it mildly ironic that a student is being charged with plagiarism. It’s not that Ms. Kingsolver, a novelist, plagiarized her talk, but it comes right from the blogs of hot headed Earth First! members and Che Guevara fan clubs. Typical graduation speech fare. But if that’s what counts as being among the greatest graduation speeches of all time, then sign me up for a talk!
Second point. Is what the Conn College student did any worse than a commencement speaker making stuff up? Of course, no one in our student newspaper bothered to cover such a thing. Instead, folks on campus are busy trying to demonize this year’s graduation speaker, who just happens to run one of the most respected, admired, well-run, good places to work corporations in the entire world. I’ll bet you a nickel that his talk will not be rated among the 10 greatest graduation speeches of all time. And you know what, it doesn’t need to be. He does more good for humanity by operating even one of his stores, than the scores of graduation speeches put together ever have done.
Let me ask you a question, do you remember a single word from your commencement address? And if you did, has it materially changed the way you act? I think Doris Kearns Goodwin gave an address to us when I was at Amherst. All I remember is her googly eyes for the Administration of FDR, and how enamored she was to have learned about what happens in the inner circles of power. And that was at a time when I was sympathetic to such puppy love.
I love the idea of graduation in recognizing an accomplishment for the students – but it pains me to listen to all of us congratulate ourselves for how vital the work that we do is, and for the stream of platitudes we get to listen to for an entire weekend.