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Commencement Speakers (not as dry as it sounds!)

May 19, 2009

As we approach Oberlin's Commencement Ceremony (May 25th) I couldn't help but think about Commencement speeches that I've heard over the years. (One of the occupational hazards of being in academia is that you have to listen to a lot of speeches.) One of the best that I heard was at Colby College where I taught many years ago. Michael Barnacle from the Boston Globe gave a speech in which he effectively made the case that graduates from elite liberal arts colleges were a privileged group who had received a lot in their lives and it was now time to give some of that back to the world. The shortest speech I ever heard was from the philanthropist George Soros at the American University in Bulgaria. He was planning to give a real speech but by the time the local Blagoevgrad mayor finished an overlong speech that was further lengthened by sequential translation into English, the 35 C. temperature had taken its toll and Mr. Soros simply said something to the effect of "Congratulations! I know you've been sitting patiently in the sun for a long time waiting for the speeches to end so you can get your diplomas. If you really want to know what I have to say, read my book." The worst commencement speech I ever heard was from C. Everett Koop, who was the surgeon general of the United States at the time. He not only had little to say, he said it in the driest possible way and the sun was beating down on that day as well.

Oberlin's commencement speaker this year is Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Haass is an Oberlin grad (class of 1973). Before taking his position in the Council, Mr. Haass was a principal advisor to Secretary of State Colin Powell and was previously special assistant to President George Bush, Sr. As Oberlin seeks to more fully internationalize, his special expertise seems particularly timely. To learn more about Mr. Haass, check out this page.

As you probably know, Oberlin College has a largely deserved reputation as being a very liberal college. The Princeton Review, for example, says that we put the "liberal" in liberal arts. So I think that it is particularly striking that Mr. Haass who has worked for two different Republican administrations is both an alumnus and our commencement speaker. This should indicate that Oberlin is a place for students of all political persuasions. It is also a place where diverse views are actively sought out and, perhaps more importantly, considered carefully by the campus community. Further evidence of this openness was a very well attended lecture by Newt Gingrich last fall.

After all, a college education is something that should leave you more knowledgeable and more capable of reaching your own informed opinion than when you left high school. It is hard to imagine how one can learn much when surrounded only by views the same as your own. Which leaves me to wonder what the protesters at Notre Dame's Commencement this past weekend were afraid of and how much they actually learned about dialogue as a form of learning during their four years there. It also leads me to congratulate the administration and board of the University of Notre Dame for their courage in bringing US President Barack Obama to campus for their Commencement.

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Richard Hass' speech was the worst I've ever heard. Instead of focusing on the graduating class, he used the time to try to justify his actions in George Bush's administration promoting and defending the Iraq war. I felt it was inappropriate and unsuccessful; I still came away thinking he did the wrong thing. I welcome points of view that are not my own, and I do see the speech's value in generating debate on campus, but I hope for my own commencement (next year) Oberlin can find someone with more integrity and more thoughtful, inspiring words to share.

Posted by: Oberlin student on May 25, 2009 6:44 PM

I'm sorry that the speech was disappointing. I have to confess that I was unable to attend as I had to take my wife to the airport during the festivities. She is actually in Los Angeles now at a national conference for international student advisers.

Posted by: Mr. grim on May 26, 2009 8:40 AM

Here is a link to the text of Mr. Haass's speech if anyone is interested

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-n-haass/dissent-is-as-american-as_b_207430.html

Posted by: Mr.Grim on May 27, 2009 8:28 AM

I had considered writing a blog post about Mr. Haass' speech, but I don't want to stir up that bee's nest unnecessarily, so I'll comment here instead. All I'll say is that I came away from the speech feeling as though Mr. Haass had attempted, like most of his colleagues in the Bush administration, to perpetrate a heinous act of revisionist history. His "mea culpa" was premised largely on the failures of others, rather than his own shortcomings, and his assertion that resigning from the Bush administration would have been counter-productive is ludicrous.

If Mr. Haass truly believes what he said in his commencement speech, then the correct course of action was for him to resign from his post as soon as it became clear that his foreign policy advice was going unheeded. What instead happened is that, for whatever reason, he remained on board and, like his boss Colin Powell, allowed himself to be a cheerleader for a war founded on apocryphal evidence, which damaged not only the US' image across the world but also cast into doubt the strength and the equity of international institutions like the UN. And that's not to mention the immense loss of life. "60/40" certainty is an utterly reproachable ratio on which to premise a war. Shame on Richard Haass.

Posted by: Will on May 28, 2009 2:53 PM

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