Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Rhetoric and Innocence

I just finished reading this year's commencement address for the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley. [Hat tip to Digby at Hullabaloo for that.] It caught my interest because, as you probably know, I graduated from that same department a number of years ago.

So it was with great fascination that I read what the address to this year's graduates would be. The tone is much more serious and somber than anything I recall from my graduation. Those were very different times. I was part of the group that planned our graduation ceremony, and consulted on inviting a commencement speaker. We chose a graduate of the department, Carrie Snow, as our speaker, and she was quite entertaining. But that was the point. She was working as a stand-up comic, and in the 1980s, there just wasn't a more appealing career.

To be honest, I don't remember a lot about Ms. Snow's address, although I do remember laughing a lot. Those were certainly more innocent times. Many in Berkeley believed that with Ronald Reagan at the helm, the country had reached a nadir. [I vividly recall the campus humor magazine cover with the caption "Reagan Wins" depicting a Berkeley "hippie" with a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head.] Little could they have anticipated how things would devolve over the next decades. We didn't want to think about the cold war or getting jobs, so inviting a comic to make us laugh seemed like a good way to end our time at Cal.

I should point out that the best tradition of the Rhetoric commencement, dating back to the time when it was the Department of Speech, is that each graduate has the opportunity to speak briefly to the assembled group. It's a pretty small department, so it doesn't add a lot of time to the ceremony, but it does bring out a lot of the personality of the department and its students in a way that I've never seen at any other graduation ceremony.

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