Jacques Barzun shared my concerns. In 1988 he contributed an article, “An American Commencement,” to Columbia Magazine (later collected in A Jacques Barzun Reader, 2002). He described the atmosphere of “pure benevolence” that reigns among the graduating students and their parents. “All these signs suggest that utopia is at hand,” he writes, “But as in the Garden of Eden, there is a joker lurking, someone with a line of talk all prepared to spoil the bliss: that is the commencement speaker.” For Barzun, a commencement speech amounts to an opportunity for a gasbag to release a lot of hot air and get paid for it.
In contrast, Barzun, when invited to address graduating students, prefers to “say a few words not about what the newly hatched might do for this world but what they might
do for themselves, as individuals.” Barzun urges the graduates to “find a Self: that is to say, a solid entity that you can trust, because you have made it yourself, and made it well.” An entire civilization is behind those words, one that many graduates today have seldom encountered in the preceding four years. Barzun suggests “getting outside one’s routine and filling the mind with vicarious experiences. This is best done through reading.” This is where the usefulness of Barzun’s advice billows far beyond mere students, who are probably the least likely demographic to pay attention:
“Reading of course can easily be nothing more than a way to kill time; but if it is calculated and intense, it is a steady extension of one’s life. If life is measured by consciousness, one whose mind is full lives longer than one whose mind is empty—just as one who is awake eighteen hours a day lives longer than one who sleeps away every twelve hours. You add to life by adding to the quantity of conscious moments through reading. This is true no matter what you read — history, poetry, novels, essays, letters, diaries, memoirs, criticism.”
Barzun calls this “reading-with-intent.” How does it help build a Self, he asks? Why isn’t the Self we’re born with sufficient? “What is lacking,” he writes, “is the contrast, the otherness, the novelty and strangeness; the shock of difference and the recognition of sameness; in other words, the work of the imagination. For to read intelligently and profitably, your imagination must work every minute, reconstructing the lives, events, and emotions depicted in print.”
It’s the bumping up against otherness that builds the Self. Not once have I heard a commencement speaker say such things. It’s almost seditious.