Graduation Speeches: A Time for True Assessment (Part 1)

by Michael Van Hecke, M.Ed.

In a flurry of headlines, one Catholic high school student made nationwide news when his school rejected the valedictorian address he submitted on grounds that it was too political. Reading it confirmed that it was, indeed, political. It was more than just political— it was “headline political”, meaning it was based on the latest political and social headlines.

While headlines are real and provide opportunities to think about topics, they should not be the prevailing element of formation for our young people’s intellectual and moral formation. And yet, we see or hear in the plethora of graduation addresses each Spring a litany of the latest headlines or simply vapid emotionalism. The content of Catholic and public school addresses seem eerily similar, despite the infinite gulf in their missions.

Student graduation speeches seem to me to be something that parents looking for a school should pay great attention to. In our assessment-obsessed educational world, it seems our principals, superintendents and bishops might also turn greater attention to these speeches. After all, are not closing addresses by the school’s top students a chief example of assessing a school’s success at accomplishing its mission? Such a speech is the culmination of four years of intellectual, cultural and moral formation. Here are some questions to consider for your schools:

What intellectual giants are they quoting, if any?

What culture are they lifting up or passing on? Is it the political tide or timeless ideas?

Are our student leaders exhibiting moral leadership and joy?

If our best and brightest are summing up four years of formation, which is what a school does, with ideas such as, “continue being yourself, continue being a leader, continue being a kind and a good person, continue changing lives, laughing, expressing your beliefs, dancing, singing and creating” [1] or, again, a litany of the news headlines from the last six months, we have failed our children. Granted, the sentiments above are fine, in and of themselves. Being able to discuss current events is a fine thing, too. However, when the greater context of these speeches does not clearly place such things in the context of a broad cultural and religious heritage that provided the society we enjoy today, it speaks to the lack of formation in that heritage.

Imagine, instead, an 18-year-old standing… Read more>>