It’s that time now when school years end, and that means it’s time for commencement ceremonies to begin.
I recently attended a couple and want to tell you what I saw. I thought that since this time of year is thick with them, you might find yourself at one and would appreciate knowing what to look out for.
Above all, watch for hijinx. Graduation ceremonies have always invited a certain amount of irreverence. For years, graduates have pasted ornaments to their mortar boards, or slapped some kind of message up there.
Things have now gone far beyond that point. If my recent experience is representative, and I have reason to think it is, many, many students now see graduation as a time to make a statement, and that statement is usually, “Look how cute I am.”
I could not count how many students in the graduations I recently attended used the occasion to attempt to hog, even for a few additional seconds, the spotlight. They danced. They shouted. They motioned to the audience for more applause. Several stopped to snap a selfie with the university officials handing out diplomas.
These things are bad enough in themselves, but they are not the most disturbing things I saw. The most disturbing things I saw were the attitudes that lay behind such behavior.
First, it was clear that for many in this generation, solemnity and seriousness are the enemy. On the occasions where they do exist, they exist only to be punctured for comic effect.
This shouldn’t be surprising in a culture that rejects adult attitudes generally. Solemnity and seriousness are adult modes of being after all. While our general culture rejects such modes of behavior, that rejection seems near total among millennials.
Seriousness, after all, implies that there exists something worth being serious about. That kind of thinking could turn worlds upside down. It seems almost as if millennials are bound by a tacit code to act as if very little, except perhaps vague notions of “social justice”, is worth being serious about.
Having nothing to be serious about smooths the way to becoming what one is destined to be: a well-remunerated unit of production and consumption for the global market. Being serious about anything means that the things you are serious about could, given the right circumstances, conflict with your progress up the consumerist ladder. Better to just lack convictions right from the start.
It is no accident that one of millennials’ most used words in the last decade or so is “awkward.” More than any previous generation, theirs seeks to avoid anything “awkward”, and, of course, serious things run a high risk of making one feel awkward. Since the two-fold purpose of life now is to achieve enough purchasing power to be able to adequately display one’s status while avoiding anything “awkward”, it’s hardly surprising so many would seek to disrupt serious and solemn occasions.
Serious and solemn occasions imply expectations and obligations, and those make most of this generation nervous. To relax the tension they feel in those moments, many seek to turn the occasion into comedy.
Not only is the fact that they do this disturbing, they way they do it is too. Every kind of antic on the platform I witnessed involved a student attempting to make the audience laugh. The goal was to transform this moment of serious achievement into a performance in which he or she was the star.
Many students, it seemed, preferred being perceived as a comedian to being perceived as a budding scholar or professional. They seemed to be competing for the honor of being the one everybody would talk about on the way home.
Behind this is a simple reality: most college graduates’ most ardent desire now is not to be educated or urbane. It certainly is not to be wise or virtuous. Their most ardent desire is to be entertaining.
Born well after Postman diagnosed entertainment as the meta-narrative of the modern age, these young people have internalized all that means. For most, it means seeing yourself as the star of a movie and living for the applause of an audience, any audience.
They are convinced that It is through earning the applause of multiple audiences, being entertaining, fun to be with, and likable, that their goals can be achieved. The reason few really desire to be either educated or wise is because those things achieve the consumer dream much less efficiently than simply being a clown.
About this, they are not wrong. Our society really has become an entertainment society. Rather than cherishing and transmitting traditional human values, we pass on only the values of show business.
See, as annoying as it is to watch their behavior, we can judge today’s young too harshly. They didn’t create this scenario. Their elders did.
Their elders taught them the most important thing in life was to be liked. Their elders abandoned them to deal with the serious parts of life alone. Their elders passed on to them a legacy of nothing. Their elders established for them ENTERTAINMENT as life’s guiding principle. In doing so, it was they, not the current generation, who set the stage, turned on the lights, fixed their eyes on their children and said, “Ok, make us laugh.”
What we see now is only the predictable and inevitable response.