At graduation, extolling cash and capitalism

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ah, graduation day. A time for ceremony - the obligatory cap and gown, misty-eyed parents, cameras clicking and flashing.

Then, someone famous and wise steps to the podium and begins the commencement address - that final rite of passage between the ivory tower and workaday reality.

The topics are tried and true: world peace, universal healthcare, social justice. But now, add to these a subject that seems to be of greater interest to grads these days: making money.

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If commencement speeches take a measure of America's pulse, this year's crop of speakers bodes well for the ideals of capitalism (and, perhaps, for repaying college loans). From entertainers to CEOs, speakers are increasingly extolling the virtues of today's golden economy - and all that it affords freshly minted graduates.

At Berklee College of Music in Boston, for instance, speakers in years past included Bonnie Raitt, Billy Joel, Sting, and David Bowie. This year, it was John Sykes. Who? you ask. The CEO of music-video station VH-1 spoke about following your vision. And by the way, "aggressively following your vision can end up being ... profitable."

Then there's sitcom star Drew Carey, who told graduates from Cleveland State University about his dismal college career at Kent State. "But look at me now, I'm a millionaire. And all of you now have degrees from Cleveland State, so maybe someday you'll be millionaires, too."

Still, not all millionaire speakers glorify the pursuit of cash. Some are preaching to grads about money's pitfalls as well.

Dotcom millionaire Marc Adler, all of 27 years old and owner of three Internet companies, refused to talk about his millions when he spoke this year at the Atlanta College of Art. Instead, he warned of falling "victim to the allure of purely financial gain. This will come as a byproduct of achievement."

Actress Uta Hagen, who spoke at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was even more blunt. "The pursuit of money today is revolting," she said.

But for every commencement speech about money, there are still 10 others about helping one's fellow man. Indeed, "go out and save the world" speeches remain the staple of American commencement ceremonies.

"They can hear how to earn a lot of money by turning on some cable channel," says Norm Arkans, an associate vice president at the University of Washington in Seattle. "The focus is, now what do I do with my energies, my attention, my intellect?"

To that end, UW grads will hear from US poet laureate Robert Pinsky in June. Wingate University in North Carolina hosted United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who encouraged graduates to work together to create a better world for others. Former US Sen. George Mitchell, a key negotiator in Northern Ireland peace talks, urged grads at Emory University in Atlanta to speak out against discrimination and injustice everywhere.

At Northeastern University in Boston, Helen Prejean - death-penalty opponent and author of "Dead Man Walking" - spoke to law graduates about the power of passion to change the lives of people in need. "I hope you are blessed with passion, idealism, and desire. Because that is really what you are about," she said.

Universities and colleges across the nation have tried various tactics when it comes to choosing speakers for the Big Day. They've paid plenty and spent months securing someone who will impart a pearl of deep wisdom - or maybe just make the audience laugh.

While businesspeople and entertainers have lately been in higher demand, the choices also include the politician, the writer, the journalist, the athlete, the social activist, and the dreaded university trustee.

Mr. Arkans says the University of Washington is a bit behind in the graduation-speaker game. It began asking outside speakers in 1990. Before then, the university president held that honor.

So far, the school has asked politicians, poets, journalists, astronauts, civil rights leaders. But Arkans knows that many graduates - who are too excited to focus on the speaker - don't remember what was said even five minutes after the commencement speech.

And then there's the danger of a dullard. "Some of the most high-profile, prestigious names can be the worst speakers you ever want to listen to," says Jay Callahan of Keppler Associates speakers' bureau in Arlington, Va., which places speakers at colleges around the country.

He says the most important rule for a good speech is "keep it short and sweet and to the point."

Even though most grads won't remember who spoke or what was said, most colleges take great care when choosing speakers. "It's about trying to make the moment a meaningful one," says Arkans. "You hope they remember, but there's no guarantee."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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