‘Social Justice,’ ‘Solidarity,’ or Just Slogans?

Woke 'tolerance' goes only one way & selfish individualism ruins ritual

My eldest son, John Zygmunt, graduated college last month with a double major. I’m proud of him and happily joined his commencement exercises at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia. GMU, one of the largest public universities in the Commonwealth, proudly boasted that this year’s 11,000 undergrad and grad graduates were a record not just for the institution but the state.

John’s graduation spread over three days. The University conducted a comprehensive graduation ceremony for all graduates but, given the size of the classes, only doctoral recipients could be recognized at the university-wide ceremony. Accordingly, each school organized a separate recognition ceremony where each graduate could have his five seconds of fame on-stage, shaking his dean’s hand. Because John had two majors in two separate schools, he had two school-specific ceremonies.

It’s been a while since I regularly participated in graduations. My undergrad and graduate commencements were studies in contrast: my undergraduate class at (now defunct) St. Mary’s College in Orchard Lake, Michigan, was 27; my graduate class at Fordham was several thousand, but that was my doctoral graduation, so we got recognized. The two schools where I taught — soon-to-be-defunct St. John’s University on Staten Island and Seton Hall — were larger universities with big commencements.

In this season of pomp and circumstance, I note two things I saw at GMU that stuck in my craw.

The first: the constant prostration to “diversity and inclusion.” Every institution of higher education apparently has to prove its bona fides by burning some incense before the altar of woke diversity. Two speeches at the University-wide commencement were, for me, a study in contrasts.

The student speaker was chosen because she was a leader in organizing Latino students on campus. Among the elements of her remarks was I think a diatribe against “injustice” wreaked upon “ancestral lands” of Rappahannock and other Indians in Virginia. I say “I think” as well as being unclear what we were supposed to do about this latest discovery of historical immorality because, while the young lady may have excelled in community organizing, she clearly decided to do that rather than pass a class in public speaking. Passion does not substitute for articulation.

Back in the late stone age when I graduated, St. Mary’s required all of us to pass a class in public speaking. St. John’s in the day did likewise. When I was a dean in the School of Theology at Seton Hall, we already needed to add a public speaking class to the seminary curriculum as a propaedeutic before we dared begin the homiletics program.

I mention her speech, however, to contrast it with the day’s speaker, Governor Glenn Youngkin — a contrast not in terms of clarity (Youngkin is, after all, an accomplished politician) but in reaction. I heard no dissenting notes during her remarks. She was politely received by all, even those of us disinterested in revisiting “ancestral lands” questions from centuries past.

Youngkin, however, is a bugaboo to the woke, having campaigned on parental rights in education. He was invited because GMU has a tradition of inviting Virginia’s governor. His superficially anodyne remarks (you’d have to think about it to imagine what he meant by saying “hold to your principles”) suffered several disruptions. Apparently, woke “tolerance” goes one way.

The second: selfish individualism. John’s second major was in business, and the School of Business organized its school-specific ceremony on a Saturday evening. Higher education increasingly being focused on vocational training, the School of Business had one of the larger contingents of the University-wide graduating class. The commencement speaker spoke of the post-COVID need of employers not just to be productive and efficient but to care about one’s people.

Graduates were called up to the stage by majors. The stage-walk part of the ceremony ran about 90 minutes to cover all the graduates. That’s when I saw something I never saw at a commencement before.

Despite being asked not to, no small number of graduates, after having had their moment on stage with the dean, proceeded back to their seats on the main floor and then proceeded to exit the arena. A second plea by the administration to stay in one’s seat until the end of the ceremony was equally futile. At the end of the event, the arena floor easily had at least one quarter to one third fewer graduates than at its beginning. A similar proportion of the audience likewise disappeared.

Why did that bother me? Most basically, because of its rudeness. Undergraduate graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime event: I sincerely doubt one had other, more pressing engagements that Saturday night.

Despite the cant about “social justice” and “solidarity” with people ignored centuries ago, these young people apparently found no “community” bond to hang with their class until every last member was honored. Please note that I emphasize the word “class.” The commencement program spoke of the event as the “Class of 2023 Graduation.” It didn’t speak of “Marisa’s Graduation” or “Akbar’s Graduation.”

If our future business leaders see themselves in such individualistic, atomized categories now, heaven forbid what they’ll be like once they make some money and have some success.

And, if they don’t feel that “solidarity” with the classmates with whom they went to class, studied alongside, took exams alongside, and rubbed elbows with for four years, they shouldn’t make others sit through paeans to “victims” they never knew from four centuries ago.

Commencement is a ritual, and one of the things we hopefully learned from COVID (which interrupted many of these students’ studies) was the importance of ritual. We make a big deal of this ritual. We dress students in garb culturally appropriated from the medieval Catholic university, attiring them in symbols and colors lifted from that value world. But if students think it is only a “ceremony” for me, providing a colorful and out-of-the-ordinary backdrop for nice pictures (not unlike wedding photos), then we have lost the meaning of this event as ceremonial ritual. Why not just mail the diplomas home with a photo of student A photoshopped into a shot with the dean?

Graduation is an important moment in a student’s life, and I am proud of my son. Having taught in a Catholic university, I affirm it’s a sign that we believe in faith and reason in life. I just wonder if the modern — especially the secular but maybe even the Catholic — university still does.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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