Thoughts on the UPenn Commencement, Part Two

I wrote already about diversity at the Wharton graduation.  I also have some Thoughts about the general UPenn commencement, which was a separate ceremony.

Before the event:

My sister: And you’ll have to make sure you don’t have any pen knives on you or anything.  They’re going to make everyone go through metal detectors.

::cue rant from me about useless draconian Band-Aid “security measures” at large events and the wrong lessons to take from terrorism::

My sister: . . . well, no, it’s that the Vice President is speaking.

Me: Oh.  Okay then.

So Joe Biden was speaking, complete with lots of Secret Service security.  I figured his speech would at least be interesting.  The Wharton commencement had had decently engaging speakers, including a statistics professor who proclaimed that statistics was becoming the new sexy (which, yay!), but the UPenn Commencement speeches started out pretty blah, so when the VP’s speech came I was looking forward to it.

He was a decently charismatic speaker.  But his speech was also very, very political.

It surprised me.  It also felt inappropriate.  (And a friend of mine coincidentally there to see her brother graduate agreed with me.)  I mean, I tend to have values that align with the socially liberal end of the spectrum, but I thought for a university commencement address to a class that very well might include a good number of more conservatively-aligned students, his speech should not have sounded like a campaign stump speech.  In fact, it felt alienating to anyone who didn’t agree with the Democratic party line, since he presented all of the Democratic ideals as progress and the Republican ones as regress.

His speech was also exceedingly America-centric (in fact, afterwards, it was the first comment my sister made).  UPenn alumni span six continents and 140 countries.  I posted yesterday about Wharton being over 1/3 international students; UPenn as a whole has less international undergraduates, but they still comprise more than 10 percent of the class.  Biden’s continual references to America being the best and most progressive nation in the world, to the U.S.’s status as THE world leader, and to our supposed supremacy over (and supposed hand-holding of) other nations felt, at best, dismissive of over ten percent of the student body, and at worst patronizing and insulting.

In my opinion, Biden did not adequately consider his audience.  This wasn’t a campaign stop; this was a commencement.  The students were there to celebrate graduating, to be told that their future was bright and the world was their oyster and they were going to go out and live marvelous lives and change the world, not to be told that their origins were inferior or that their politics were wrong.

Despite Biden’s speech, however, and despite two invocations by the chaplain that felt entirely out of place for a secular university, the most inappropriate line of the night was from (if I recall correctly) the president of the university.  In trying to speak about Penn’s influence in the world, she talked about how it extended everywhere, even to “the wilds of India.”  She paused awkwardly for a moment, as if she had been planning to add on more countries and places, and then moved on.

It was clearly a faux pas, but the urban, middle-class Indian family sitting behind us sounded rather perplexed and insulted.

Interestingly, the student chosen to sing the United States National Anthem was Indian, and he did an excellent job.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on the UPenn Commencement, Part Two

  1. InMyBook

    You bring up interesting and valid points regarding Biden’s speech. I think you should cut Penn president Dr. Amy Gutmann a little bit more of a break. While she may have had an awkward slip of the tongue, isn’t that inevitable when someone gives as many speeches as she does? I doubt she meant it the way it sounded.

  2. slhuang Post author

    I’m sure she didn’t mean it the way it sounded, but I’m still unwilling to cut her any slack. ;)

    In all seriousness, I dunno, there are times in my life when I’ve been giving a lot of speeches. And of course the occasional verbal stumble or grammatical misstep is inevitable, but I don’t think “the wilds of India” would’ve popped out of her mouth unless at least part of her thought that way.

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