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NPR Commentary -- June 13, 1994

Ritual Graduation

by James Fallows

[This is the season of college graduation, in which students hear uplifting sentiments about what the future will bring. Commentator James Fallows recently listened to some of these speeches and has these thoughts:]

Students usually call this ritual graduation, since for them it marks the end of a process, but I now realize why Commencement is the official term. Last week I went back to Harvard and, for the first time since my own graduation in 1970, I sat through an entire commencement exercise.

The moment of enlightenment came after the new graduates had received their degrees and the commencement speeches were about to begin. In a vast procession, thousands of alumni there for reunions marched into a courtyard and were seated according to class year. In the very first row sat the oldest living alumnus, a 102-year-old from the class of 1913. In the very last row sat a few fresh-faced members of classes of 1992 and '93.

In between were the rest of us, a systematic tableau of what time does. As I looked behind me, at graduates who had left 15, or 10, or only 5 years ago, I saw facial wrinkles vanish, stomachs flatten, babies appear on young parents' knees. As I looked ahead of me, I saw hair turn silver, or give way to shining pates. A few more rows ahead came the first hearing aids, then the canes, and then an ominous drop-off in the number of representatives per class. I know that my chair wasn't actually moving, but I felt as if we were all on a vast conveyer belt, moving us inexorably from the back row to the front. It was this ride, through adult life, which commenced for the new crop of grads.

At that moment a commencement hymn began. It was Gaudeamus igitur, whose melody we've all heard but whose words I'd never paid attention to before. [SONG HERE]

We sang the words in Latin, but the program included an English translation.

Gaudeamus igitur means "Let us rejoice..." But then,

Juvenes dum sumus -- "... while we are young"

Post jucundum juventutem -- "After delightful youth"

Post molestam senectutem -- "After grievous old age"

Nos habebit humus -- "The earth will hold us."

The ceremony went on for hours, but it seemed to me that the earnest speeches that followed were all trumped by this short song. The speeches talked about boundless horizons. The song said make the most of a finite ride.

Perhaps the song should take the place of all future commencement speeches, which no one can remember and are too long anyway. It needs just one small change.

Gaudeamus igitur "Let us rejoice," it could begin

Dum vivimus "While we live."

Copyright © 1995, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.
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