Most commencement addresses, truth be told, are neither memorable nor meaningful. Filled with platitudes and banalities about the unmatched accomplishments and unlimited promise of each year’s crop of new college graduates, the predictable speech thankfully fades away as quickly as the moment passes, pleasantly recalled but rarely recollected.
Yet every once in a while, a commencement address comes along that has something to say and deserves to be remembered and reread, again and again.
Consider Hillary Clinton’s address recently at Yale University’s annual Class Day. Between jokes about the 2016 election (she says she is still “not over” the loss), the former senator, secretary of state, and presidential nominee spoke intently of the “full-fledged crisis in our democracy” brought on by her unnamed former political opponent.
Clinton warned the enthralled graduates that “there are leaders in our country who blatantly incite people with hateful rhetoric, who fear change, who see the world in zero-sum terms.” The inexorable result is that our fundamental rights, civic virtue, freedom of the press, and even facts and reason are “under assault like never before.”
Following the Yale tradition of sporting silly headgear for Class Day, Clinton pulled out a Russian ushanka cap to underscore her point, surrendering subtlety along with any gravitas she had left. Then came the cliché: The Class of 2018 had “already demonstrated the character and courage that will help you navigate this tumultuous moment.”
Inadvertently, Clinton’s speech brings to mind another commencement address given 40 years ago: Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 address at Harvard University.
At first glance, both speeches seem to touch on the same points, urging students to fight for freedom and democracy, asserting a need for more civic engagement, and warning of the danger of attacks on truth. Solzhenitsyn’s speech also included references to Russia and a threat to democracy — but there the similarities end.
My teacher, Charles Kesler — who was among those Harvard graduates in 1978 and is now editor of the Claremont Review of Books — called Solzhenitsyn’s “the most memorable commencement address of the 20th century.” And for good reason, as Kesler recalled recently upon receiving the 2018 Bradley Prize. (Kesler’s full assessment of the address appears in the September 15, 1978, edition of National Review.)
Solzhenitsyn eschewed the traditional clichés and head pats for the students, delivering instead a stunning analysis of the East and West, one which took seriously Harvard’s celebrated motto of Veritas — Truth — to speak of the imminent danger the West faced in losing not only the Cold War but also its democratic soul.
The celebrated author and former Gulag prisoner warned that the Western world had lost its “civic courage” to defend the moral, spiritual, and philosophical convictions of the West. It had lost that courage, he feared, because it had become unsure of those convictions.
Clinton’s speech, in contrast, was more directly and immediately political — celebrating student activism on campus and urging students to continue defending truth and democracy by “speaking out,” “calling out actual fake news,” and “voting in every election.”
While Clinton called for a ‘radical empathy’ to heal our country, Solzhenitsyn demanded a ‘spiritual blaze’ to save our soul.
Solzhenitsyn did not equate civic courage with mere political engagement or activism. Indeed, he warned that while the ideological underpinnings of Communism would not triumph, the legalism he saw governing the United States could not sustain the soul of democracy. As he explained: “I have spent all my life under a Communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either.”
At the time, Solzhenitsyn doubted whether the West could recover its convictions or its courage. The Soviets were advancing in Central America and would soon invade Afghanistan. Karol Józef Wojtyła had yet to became John Paul II, and Ronald Reagan had yet to be elected president of the United States.
Yet Solzhenitsyn did not propose immediate political activism as the way to defend truth. Explaining that the “the press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it,” Solzhenitsyn argued that the root cause of what we today might label as “fake news” was actually the West’s vulnerability to what today we might call “political correctness.” “In the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those that are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges, ” he noted. “Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day.”
Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard message was thus less comforting, more challenging, and infinitely wiser than Clinton’s Yale address. While Clinton called for a “radical empathy” to heal our country, Solzhenitsyn demanded a “spiritual blaze” to save our soul. “We shall have to rise to a new height of vision,” he said, “to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled on as in the Modern era.”
America is indeed in the middle of a crisis today — of constitutional governance, of moral conviction, and political courage. But the commencement that speaks more to our time, and recalls the permanent verities of the human condition, was delivered 40 years ago. Disregard Clinton at Yale. Dwell on Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address.
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