The temptation to tell the gathered students — all dressed up under their graduation gowns, in the heat, the smell of fresh mown grass, the watercolor-blue sky, celebratory cakes in boxes on counters at home — something they are not expecting must be hard to resist for a certain kind of charismatic, boundary-breaking educator or writer or other distinguished person. There is rarely such a rich, glimmering possibility for upending platitudes and an audience so primed, so emotionally wrought, so unusually open to listening, so uncharacteristically reflective.
At my own graduation, the headmistress of my girls' school gave an overtly hostile graduation speech enumerating in startling detail how difficult, theatrical and irritatingly self-righteous the graduating class was. The rows of girls in white dresses felt extremely betrayed, along with their parents. She singled out the hypocrisy of a piece I had written for our underground newspaper, Samizdat, called "The Mystique of the Ivies" about how the school was pressuring students to go to Ivy League colleges, even though I myself, along with many of the other editors of this pretentiously subversive publication, was headed to an Ivy league college in the fall. She attacked us for our half-informed, rather-festive sit-in in the lobby against the school's investment in South Africa. Very soon afterward she stepped down from her position and left the school. It was widely believed that she had suffered some form of nervous collapse: The bracing originality of her act or performance piece was not appreciated, in part because she lacked the panache of McCullough, if not the simmeringly channeled rage.
David Foster Wallace's famously excellent Kenyon commencement speech is not exactly hostile, but it is challenging (and if closely read, it is hostile to the complacency that McCullough is attacking, and to the future selves of the vast majority of the graduating seniors. Does that matter, though? Do any of them see clearly the settling, the mediocrity, the comfortableness they will embrace in coming years? Or do they all, down to every last "swaggering jock," think of themselves as Holdens, as outsiders, as possessing of singular integrity and unique alienation? )