Recently, like millions of other Americans without a rock-solid
alibi, I posed for a few flashbulbs in the face and accompanied my
brother to a basketball gym to observe that modern American
rite-of-passage: high school graduation.
While watching him wait through music and speeches to collect his
magic sheet of parchment, I realized something that could be of profound
use to all scholars of American mores. Pound for pound, you’d be hard
pressed to find another event that cuts so deeply to the core of what
Americans think of themselves versus what is actually the case. The
whole event wraps Nietzsche’s “will to power” in the rhetoric of the
French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity, then GET OUT OF MY
Shoving aside the formal similarities — the band, the dais, the caps
and gowns — every single graduation that I’ve ever attended included a
speech by a smart aleck male (usually the president of the student body
or “class speaker”) bantering on in modern parlance; this speaker
actually started “Wazzup!” He talks about “how cool this all was,
dude,” attempts to extract some shallow lessons (“your friends and
family are important”) and enthuses about the “awesome” future to come.
If he was the only human cliche, I could live with it. He isn’t.
There’s also the annoyingly perky valedictorian (usually female)
talking about the “common experiences” she’s shared with the class.
Yeah right. Valedictorians and “common experiences” — how shall I put
this? — do … not … go … together.
I can never shake the feeling that she’s thinking to herself, “I’ll
be at (fill in elite Eastern school) next year while he — that poor
schlub in the middle of the third row, who mocked me for answering
everything in ninth grade and tried to copy off me in our last class
together in 11th — will be flipping burgers at Wendy’s!”
Then there’s the class’ favorite teacher who really “cares” and
“gives his all” to his students, reflecting back on their four wonderful
years together; the sincere but artless confessions of faith (barring a
court order) by evangelical Christian students who worry that if they
don’t say something, the audience will all go to hell; and those
perennial nuggets of faux wisdom about how “life is a journey,” “these
were the best years of our lives,” “we’ll always have the memories, ”
and “we need to give something back.”
Yeah, like the time I wasted listening to this tripe.
In a country as rebellious as America, you’d think this manufactured
outpouring of emotion and groupthink, replicated thousands of times
every year, would begin to grate. Especially since it is perilously
hard to flunk.
For whatever reason — Bill Buckley recently fingered “pedagogical
anarchy” — academic standards at most public schools are shot to hell
and gone. Very expensive American schools every year churn out a good
percentage of graduates who are illiterate and innumerate, or
functionally so. Many high schools do not even require algebra in order
to graduate. A chief task of community colleges is remedial education
to make up for the massive failure on the part of their junior
I went to a respected public high school. Not very many years ago, I
took a science class that, while not advanced, I had been told was
“hard.” I did not turn-in at least 40 assignments. Final grade: A.
In fact, the economic benefit of a high school education is marginal
at best, signifying to future employers that this person is
slightly less likely to be a drug addict or is marginally
more prone to seeing something through. Businessmen, being no dummies,
often don’t trust the paper that diploma is printed on. In yet another
Gresham’s Law, the bad has devalued the good.
So, the prosecution rests: graduations are dull, repetitive and meaningless. Don’t attend. Or, at least, that’s where I’d like to leave the matter. But I can’t.
Seven years from now, when my other young brother dons his cap and gown to waltz down that aisle and receive his diploma, I will be one of the rowdiest members of the peanut gallery. There is one aspect of graduation that appeals directly to the soul of every observer and participant present, including this one: recognition.
The people do not attend this mawkish spectacle to honor all the students present. We attend to honor only a few, usually our flesh and blood; to force everyone else to see this honor so publicly bestowed and to respect it. Every student — from the class pothead to the dumb jocks to the annoying valedictorian to the slate of girls with child (and happy for the loose-fitting gown) — is extended the same courtesy. So, at first blush, a great blow is struck for equality and all that.
Except that it’s not. All the nods to God, community and equality get shoved aside as individual names are called and future destinations are spelled-out (“blankety-blank will be attending…”). What looks like a leveling force, then, is simply a chance for the next-ruling-class-in-training to strut their stuff before leaving everybody else in the dust.
But we’re too busy clapping to notice.
Jeremy Lott is the assistant managing editor of WorldNetDaily’s sister print publication,