A quick test: (a) Who was the commencement speaker at your high school graduation? (b) At your college graduation? (c) Regardless of your answer to (a) or (b), can you recall anything he or she had to say?
An unscientific sampling of friends and acquaintances produced the following results: (a) 2 of 10 could identify the speaker; (b) 1 of 10; (c) 1 of 10. In my own case, I could identify (a) (the late federal judge Harold Medina) and (b) (President John F. Kennedy). As to content, I failed miserably. Judge Medina quoted from Horace, a lifelong inspiration for him, but to what effect I have no idea. President Kennedy, so the papers said the next day, delivered a major foreign policy address, but for me and I suspect for most of my classmates, his remarks were chiefly notable for a single line: After being crowned with an honorary doctorate, the president said that he now had the best all worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree.
These sobering nonrecollections brought me to the brink of despair a few weeks ago as I prepared to deliver the commencement address at the venerable Hill School, in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Here, mind you, is an institution that was founded ten years before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter and whose roster of graduates runs the gamut from Edmund Wilson, the most influential literary critic of this century, to James Baker, White House chief of staff and treasury secretary to Ronald Reagan, and later secretary of state under George Bush. The year 1998 was, moreover, one of some poignancy in the school’s history. The Hill is celebrated for its familial warmth, its no-nonsense but good-natured traditionalism, and a faculty that weeps when one of the sparrows entrusted to its care falls. But come next fall, the school will admit girls for the first time in its 147-year history.
To an age that can barely remember how boys and girls are different, much less why their education requires separate arts, going coed must seem an unremarkable if long overdue innovation. But for a school that had mastered the art of turning boys into reasonable facsimiles of gentlemen for nearly a century and a half, the move to coeducation was taken only after grave (and not altogether happy) deliberation. In the end necessity mothered the change: The supply of parents and boys who seek single-sex education, or who are even aware of its benefits, had diminished to the point of near-extinction.
The mood of the school these days is a curious mixture of sentimental regret and enthusiastic optimism. There is a liveliness about the place not seen in years (thanks in large part to an energetic headmaster, David Dougherty, who loves baseball, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and educating boys in equal proportions, but is dubious about stepping off cliffs). But enthusiasm for the new is tempered by celebration of its proud, all-male tradition. Girls, God bless them one and all, are coming, but the school is determined not to become a cookie-cut version of virtually every other prep school in the country.
What does a commencement speaker say on such an occasion? The first thing he ought to bear in mind is that his function is precisely that of a corpse at an Irish wake: His presence is necessary to get the party going, but no one expects him to say anything. All those ponderous themes about The Meaning of Life or The Central Crisis of Our Time quickly dissolve in the recognition that this last all-male graduating class has other things on its mind—girls, for example—and that not even an eloquent president of the United States would likely penetrate their memories thirty years hence.
Happily, help arrived from a higher authority, in this case St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which ends with a ringing endorsement of the cardinal virtues as the pre-condition for happiness in this world no less than in the next. The Hill School’s motto, “Whatsoever Things Are True,” is taken from these concluding verses. No boy enters its portals for very long without being reminded of its continuing relevance, and, I concluded, there was no better way for them to go out than to be reminded of it once again. A generation of adolescents reared in a relativistic age is very good at reciting Seinfeldian mantras, but the better angels of their natures hope for something more. They already know that life is moral choice: “Whatsoever Things Are True,” or merely “Whatever?” I do not flatter myself that the lads will long recall who I was. But St. Paul hoped that his beloved Philippians would pay some mind to the truth. I believe no less about the wonderful young men I addressed a few weeks ago.