Graduation Speeches: A Time for True Assessment (Part 1) - Cardinal Newman Society

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

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 in front of his classmates and drawing on a variety of quotes from contemporary and historical figures, all relating to mankind’s ultimate destiny. Imagine little vignettes about classmates and teachers interspersing deep and abiding truths, learned in the context of a high school formation which included the greatest works of literature, philosophy, theology and history, not to mention science and math learned in a manner aligned with how our mind comes to know truth, and how God is glorified in his creation. It can happen, should happen, and actually does happen. These graduates go on to face college, university or a career with a perspective that is broad, deep and hopeful. They do not waltz in and out of high school and on to their next stage of life only learning how to react to the next political cause de jour.

We don’t have to “imagine”, we have real world examples!

Here are some brief quotes from some graduation speeches at Catholic schools which are not only laudable, they are indicative that the true mission of Catholic education can indeed be fulfilled!

“For the past four years, [this school] has proposed a path to Truth, a way to profoundly live, and now it is up to each of us to pursue that end of happiness. As Christians, we realize that the true fruits of our labor come not in this world, but in the next, so we can be joyful in this earthly life even through the hardships and in the pit of all suffering.”

“We have all been blessed to have a school which loves us and desires for us to turn the tide of civilization by forming individuals in the Truth.”

“We have received an incredible formation here. We have received our friendships. But what is it all for? What will we do with them? There are many different paths we can take, but they must all have the same mission, the same end. We must do what our teachers have done for us. We must aid the Church in her great duty of spreading the Good News to all we meet by being examples to everyone of the joy that can be attained through Christ and His Church.”

“Studying stories (such as The Odyssey or Beowulf) that grapple with the fundamental questions in life help plant seeds of thought within the student’s mind, which may eventually grow into further realization and understanding. Meanwhile, the study of logic and mathematics helps form a clear, rational mind receptive to truth. Once truth is discovered, the skills taught in rhetoric, grammar, oration, and writing allow for that same truth to be eloquently expressed.”

“The way I’ve been talking about a classical education may make it sound like just by studying this book and that poem one can magically form a perfect, wise, intelligent person on par with King Solomon himself. All it takes is a quick glance at my class to see that’s not the case. It would take a much longer time than four years, studying many, many more works than we have, to gain any significant amount of wisdom. We have learned and studied much, but ultimately it is only a grain of sand on the shore.”

“The education we receive is so powerful, effective, and lasting because it is centered in human relationships, like Christ and His disciples.”

These quotes derive from schools where the mission of the school is aligned with the Church’s time-honored tradition of education, and which have faculties populated with men and women desirous to know more deeply man’s nature and calling, whatever the discipline they teach. Because of that, they think together, talk together and read together. They are a true community of learners, and so it is no surprise that their students are as well.

In my next article, I will provide a fuller example of such student thought by providing more of their own words, so you can judge for yourself.

How does your school stack up?


MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.

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