Donald Trump was the Voldemort, the “he who must not be named,” of this year’s commencement season. While many high-profile speakers certainly addressed the current political climate, none dared do so with specificity. That was the right call. It was an approach I myself followed.
There was Oprah at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. (“You will become the new editorial gatekeepers, an ambitious army of truth-seekers who will arm yourselves with the intelligence, with the insights, and the facts necessary to strike down deceit.”)
Michael Bloomberg at Rice University. (“Today, those in politics routinely dismiss any inconvenient information, no matter how factual, as fake — and they routinely say things that are demonstrably false.”)
Tim Cook at Duke University. (“Our country is deeply divided, and too many Americans refuse to hear any opinion that differs from their own. And yet, we are not powerless in the face of these problems. You are not powerless to fix them.”)
Rex Tillerson at Virginia Military Institute. (“Demand our pursuit of America’s future be fact-based, not based on wishful thinking, not hoped-for outcomes made in shallow promises.”)
Hillary Clinton at Yale University. (“We’re living at a time when fundamental rights, civic virtues, freedom of the press, even facts and reason, are under assault like never before.”)
And Al Gore at the University of Maryland. (“When the heart and soul of our democracy is being challenged, what have you done?”)
For former Obama presidential speechwriter David Litt, those allusions were not enough. Litt took to the Daily Beast to argue that Trump be named.
“Talking about President Trump, rather than a hypothetical person who we all know to be President Trump, would also speak directly to young people increasingly confused by society’s style guide. … To the newest generation of Americans, oblique criticism is often not a sign of courtesy but of insincerity,” he wrote.
One day after Litt’s prodding, Sen. Jeff Flake was more direct when speaking at the Harvard Law School.
“This is it, if you have been wondering what the bottom looks like. This is what it looks like when you stress-test all of the institutions that undergird our constitutional democracy, at the same time,” he said.
When I was invited to offer a commencement address at Delaware Valley University, I paid particular attention to what others were saying. I, too, wanted to address our political climate but thought that to reference the president’s name would violate the “time and place” rule by which I was raised. Besides, I view what ails the nation as larger than any one person. Early on, I decided to address citizenship.
So I began my speech by giving the graduates an oral exam – four questions drawn from the naturalization test: The House of Representatives has how many voting members? What do we call the first 10 amendments to the Constitution? How many justices are on the Supreme Court of the United States? On what day was the Declaration of Independence adopted? For “extra credit” I asked: In what year was the Constitution written?
Most of the graduates bypassed this test because their citizenship came with their birth in this country. “But ask yourself,” I said, “if your citizenship were dependent upon your knowledge of our government, would you make it?”
By any number of objective measures, our knowledge of our government and our participation in our communities are on the decline. And given our polarized political environment, that couldn’t come at a worse time.
Almost 50 percent of Americans don’t know that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision holds the same weight as a 9-0 decision.
Only one-quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government. And less than 1 in 4 young people are considered proficient in civic knowledge.
Not to mention, we just lived through one of the most electrifying elections in our nation’s history — say what you will about the major candidates — but dull it was not. Nevertheless, 102 million eligible voters sat it out!
What a shame where our deliberative process does not involve guns or knives, our representation is not dependent on a bloodline, nor who has the most feared army.
We settle our scores when the curtain is drawn on a ballot box. That is, when people show up to vote.
Coincidentally, a few days before speaking at Delaware Valley University, I’d spoken in a retirement village, the Pine Run Community. There, I’d met a 90-year-old gentleman named Oskar Larsson, who had worked for 35 years as the Delaware Valley registrar. Larsson told me that on his watch, students were actually graded for citizenship. Professors would weigh in on not only academic achievement but also the extent to which the students were good citizens.
“Ask yourself,” I said, “if the practice continued, what would your transcript reveal?”
Finally, I said this:
“No matter your political outlook, I hope we can agree that never in the modern era has there been such a need for civic engagement.
That is my wish for you today.
Like your parents, siblings, friends, and now former faculty, I too want you to go forth and conquer your professional goals.
That you be prosperous.
Fall in love.
But also … that you be good citizens.
Pay attention to public affairs.
Get out of your bubble and sample a variety of news outlets.
Be active in your communities.
Take ownership of this country.
It’s your watch now.
The fate of the nation is in your hands.”
Answer key: 435; the Bill of Rights; nine; July 4, 1776; and 1787.