Other than tooth-fillings and beach jogs in Baywatch, there are few things more interminable than a graduation ceremony. Speaker after speaker shambles to the podium to say generic observation #1 or switches it up to include clichéd joke #3. The average observer, likely in attendance for a single relative or friend, slowly sinks down onto the excruciatingly uncomfortable bleacher or folding chair, quietly begging for the proceedings to end. But they don’t. The program gets worse. Enter the self-obsessed valedictorian.
There are degrees of insufferableness here, measured by how many times the speakers reference themselves or personal causes. For instance, a Texan graduate started monologuing about abortion, a New Jersey grad about his mental health, and a Wisconsin teen about his sexuality (or tried to). While it may seem mean-spirited to critique youths for their passionate speeches — sure, maybe it is — they chose the wrong place and time.
The purpose of a valedictorian’s speech is simple: Talk about your class and the progress the group has made over however many years it has been since entering school. It’s an “us” moment, not a “me” moment. The valedictorian already has the plaudits, cords, and all other manner of symbolic elevation above his or her peers; they need not make the speech about them.
Further, those speeches that throw faculty under the bus are performative, petulant, and uncharitable. There are many ways to effect change in a school; rhetorically thrashing it at graduation ain’t it.
While students have long chafed at their schools’ strictures and used the platform of graduation to unburden themselves, the recent evolution of using the valedictorian’s position to go into graphic detail about personal issues feels different — especially given how the audience for these speeches can now be millions through YouTube and national news. Yuval Levin has written about this phenomenon and said in an interview with NPR:
We now think of institutions less as formative and more as performative, less as molds of our character and behavior, and more as platforms for us to stand on and be seen. And so from one arena to another in American life, we see people using institutions as stages, as a way to raise their profile or build their brand.
This is likely the case for the students mentioned above. The speeches were not about the class, the value of hard work, or even the importance of education. Instead, it was an opportunity to stand alone in the sunshine.
Chesterton said it best:
I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.
Our brightest students do not yet know how stupid they are but make up for this with moral certainty and self-absorption.
Looking forward, I’m unsure of how we arrest this unwelcome trend. Personally, I’d prefer we do away with graduation speeches, which at best are an impediment to a pulled-pork lunch. That’s unlikely, though. And teenagers are painfully aware of graduation-related virality, with many incentives to become the next sensational story about an overbearing school administration and the valedictorian who stood up to them, speaking his or her “truth.”
One shining counterexample is a young man who used his speech to talk of himself self-deprecatingly — a rare ability for the highest-scoring of students. Valedictorian speeches can be done well, but the exception proves the rule, I fear.