Early June is commencement season. The Princeton University exercises took place last Tuesday, June 2. They claim around here that “God is a Princetonian.” I don’t know about that, but we seem to have extraordinary good fortune in the weather for our out-of-doors ceremony. The setting, on the well-shaded lawn in front of historic Nassau Hall, is gorgeous. A decent number of faculty turn up to march and are seated on the platform, along with the prize winners — honorary-degree recipients, four outstanding New Jersey school teachers, and four notable faculty teachers. There are only three brief speeches — two by students, a Latin oration by the Salutatorian and an English oration by the Valedictorian, and one (of about 10 minutes) by Shirley Tilghman, our admirable president. It is all very civilized, and the whole ceremony clocks in at a little over an hour. I usually watch the streaming video while working in my office, but this year I marched, and was reminded of how moving an occasion a well-run commencement is.
For the most part, the honorary-degree recipients were pretty traditional: Ruby Dee Davis and Meryl Streep (two notably intelligent and interesting actresses), Alice Waters (the chef and sustainable-food advocate), an emeritus faculty member (as is our habit). But for me the high point was the degree awarded to Ernesto Cortes, the superb community organizer from San Antonio, whose career I hold up for admiration each fall to the students in my course on Civil Society and Public Policy. I always love the awards to the school teachers — I serve on the committee that selects them. And of course I enjoy seeing some of my favorite colleagues recognized for their commitment to teaching. This year both of the student orations were pretty bland, I thought, though the Valedictorian is one of the best undergraduate pianists I have ever heard perform — perhaps they should have provided a piano for him. President Tilgman gave a graceful talk whose theme was the need for our graduates to seize a Rahm Emmanuel moment and make an opportunity out of a crisis: “The skills and traits that we strived to instill in you — critical thinking and writing, a finely tuned moral compass, a disciplined work ethic, a commitment to excellence in whatever you choose to do, compassion for those less privileged and a devotion to service — will serve you well whatever comes next.” I doubt we have instilled all of those admirable qualities in our students, but it was a suitably upbeat statement.
The next day my wife and I flew to Santa Barbara, California for the middle school “promotion” exercises for our grandson Sam Katz (who would like to see his name in print). There were 500 8th graders on the lawn at La Collina School, with parents (and grandparents) on folding chairs brought from home. There were two or three nice student speeches (gratitude to teachers and staff at La Collina) and a quite nice talk by the principal (go forth and do good). Everyone seemed happy and devoted to community service, despite their terror of high school next year. At least the 8th graders did not have to worry about finding jobs this summer. Hope springs eternal in June. And a good thing, too.