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Vol. III No. 35   ·   Week of 9 June 2000   

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Commencement speech scorns elitism
Tom Wolfe salutes BU for putting academic freedom over fads

By Eric McHenry

The day’s colors were red, white, and grey.

On May 21, 4,000 scarlet-robed seniors gathered at Nickerson Field to hear a man in a custom-made white gown give BU’s 127th Commencement address. It was fitting that an overcast sky couldn’t complete the patriotic color scheme, because the patriotism in Tom Wolfe’s speech was tempered with words of warning — words the celebrated cultural critic wishes he had been told as a graduating senior in 1951.

Tom Wolfe receives his honorary degree

 
  Chancellor Silber and President Westling confer an honorary doctorate of humane letters upon Tom Wolfe, BUís 127th Commencement speaker. Photo by Fred Sway
 

“And this one thing is even more virulent today than it was half a century ago,” he told the Class of 2000. “We live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion — and for precisely the same reason articles of fashion are worn, which is to make the wearer look better and to feel à la mode.”

In that respect, he pointed out, the learning environment at BU is something of an anachronism. He began his address by praising the University for placing academic freedom above academic fashion.

“There is no university to which I would rather have been invited on this day in this May, whose hood and whose raiment I would rather wear,” Wolfe said. “Thanks to a couple of Johns, John Silber and Jon Westling, and to a brilliant faculty . . . this University has been a shining lighthouse of independent thought and of liberal democracy, in the classical meaning of liberal, as John Silber has so wonderfully defined it over the years.
“I choose the image of a lighthouse very carefully, John and Jon, because lighthouses are built to stand alone and to bear the brunt of the storm, no matter what that storm may be.”

Wolfe was visibly caught off guard when Silber, rather than hooding him immediately after his honorary doctorate citation was read, instead began to remove Wolfe’s black academic robe. From under the speaker’s lectern Westling took a one-of-a-kind white Boston University robe, which the two placed on Wolfe’s shoulders. The delighted audience cheered the man in the white robe, whose broad grin was clearly spontaneous.

“I’m telling you this is a total surprise,” he said. “I knew something had irresistibly drawn me to this moment, and there you have it.”

In the United States, inde-pendent thought has been experiencing a period of inclement weather, Wolfe said, with intellectual fads driving traditional ways of thinking indoors. One problematic idea that has recently found favor, in part because it is so unobjectionable at face value, is the idea “that each people, each culture, has its own integrity, has its own validity, which must be respected and must have its day in the sun,” he said. “I don’t think anybody will bother to argue with that, but what I think you’re going to find fairly soon, as you head out into the world, are two things: first, that it’s irrelevant, and second, that it leads to what I think of as pernicious enlightenment.”

The dominant culture, he explained, risks appointing itself guardian of other cultures’ best interests — becoming their advocate and, ultimately, their patron. The results can be patronizing. He cited a recent New York state court of appeals decision in which a young man who had been blasting rap music from his car stereo was acquitted of violating a noise ordinance. “Too loud,” the judge reasoned, was a subjective determination that could vary from one cultural group to another. “How condescending can you get?” Wolfe asked.

Other invidious trends, he said, include the tendencies, in America, to malign the middle class, and to reserve the term intellectual for those who express moral outrage. He drew an explicit distinction between the American public intellectual — “a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others” — and a person of genuine intellectual achievement, and called the world’s middle class “the highest form of evolution.”

American liberal democracy, he concluded, with its power to cultivate prosperity and accommodate diversity, both cultural and ideological, can weather periods of pernicious enlightenment.

“We are in the beginning of what may be a Pax Americana,” Wolfe said. “This may be the second century of 1,000 years of rule in the world by benign liberal democracy. I think we should rejoice in this. And I feel so much better knowing that there are people like yourselves, members of the class of 2000 at Boston University, who have developed the independence of thought to judge the world strictly by the evidence of your own eyes.

“You’re not going to find many traditional judges who can lead you any longer. You’re going to have to make the crucial judgments yourselves. But you are among the very handful of those who can do it. You are graduates of one of the two or three greatest universities in America.”

       

16 June 2000
Boston University
Office of University Relations