Oprah Winfrey has been chosen as the speaker at this year’s Harvard commencement. This has raised a small ruckus. Here is Harry Lewis, a Harvard professor and former dean of the college, in a bit of a snit:
I am sure she is an inspiration, though I can’t quite get out of my mind the image of her with the wheelbarrow full of fat. The car giveaways and so on. She has given away a ton of money for good causes, to be sure.
And I suppose we will again have some noble, courageous, self-sacrificing folks also receiving honorary degrees as they sit listening in polite silence to the self-promoting, wealthy television celebrity.
Is that what the stage once occupied by Winston Churchill, George Marshall, Ralph Ellison, John F. Kennedy, U Thant, Vaclav Havel, Alan Paton, Benazir Bhutto, Mary Robinson, and David Souter is going to be used for in the future?
But in a later post he makes a more substantive point, noting that Oprah is a major purveyor of pseudo-science and quackery:
It seems very odd for Harvard to honor such a high profile popularizer of the irrational. I can’t square this in my mind, at a time when political and religious nonsense so imperil the rule of reason in this allegedly enlightened democracy and around the world.
He also provides a link to a list of past commencement day speakers. Perusing this list, I started wondering why the heck Harvard has a commencement speaker at all. At lesser institutions the speaker probably gives the school a bit of publicity, but Harvard doesn’t need publicity. Sometimes I suppose an institution gives the speaking slot to a top contributor, but Harvard clearly doesn’t do that. So why do they bother? It’s not like anyone cares about what Oprah or Fareed Zakaria (last year’s speaker, also a dubious choice) or Ellen Sirleaf (president of Liberia and the speaker two years ago) has to say. Certainly not when all anyone wants to do is get out of the heat and go party.
And it’s also not like Harvard’s choices have been uniformly good in the past. Lewis admits he cherry-picked that list of his, with Churchill and Marshall and Kennedy on it. The complete list is filled with the names of forgotten politicians and diplomats and industrialists. Harvard seems particularly fond of bringing in presidents and chancellors of Germany. What’s up with that? My year we listened to the immortal Roy Harris Jenkins, who is described as “former deputy leader of Britain’s Labor Party.” I’m sure if I hadn’t been hung over I’d have remembered every word he said.
Harvard should just get rid of the commencement speaker altogether. Then it can say that no one meets its high standards. Which would probably be true.