We call graduations “commencements” because students, once schooling is done, enter “real life.” In that sense “dying” is the most radical commencement, as we move from what C.S. Lewis called the shadowlands into a far sunnier existence. In life, the commencement each of us should most remember is not an academic degree ceremony but the time we professed faith in Christ. That’s when we end our total captivity to sin and start occasionally doing things right.
Given this concept of Christian commencement, who has been the most effective commencement speaker on any college campus during the past 30 years? My redefinition knocks out a prime contender, Kermit the Frog, who received an honorary “doctorate of amphibious letters” when he spoke at Southampton College’s commencement in 1996. It also leaves out most of this year’s luminaries, including President Barack Obama (Ohio State and Morehouse), Vice President Joe Biden (University of Pennsylvania), Julie Andrews (University of Colorado), Stephen Colbert (University of Virginia), Arianna Huffington (Smith), and Deepak Chopra (Hartwick).
The preliminary college commencement schedules showed one place where students could hear a speech that would help them commence: Johns Hopkins on May 23, where famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson was on tap. Sadly, some students opposed that invitation because Carson stands up against two juggernauts, evolution and gay rights. Carson said he did not want to be the center of attention on a day when the students should be central, so he withdrew.
What about students elsewhere? Who helps them commence? One person has, for 30 years: Since Ronald Reagan’s first term, 58-year-old Cliffe Knechtle has been on the road three-fourths of the time from September through May, answering student questions daily for two to four hours in outdoor public areas of MIT, Harvard, and at the universities of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Columbia, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, along with Duke, N.C. State, Florida State, and others.