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Commencement Admonition
by [?]

It is quite evident that with, the multiplication of colleges, which is very rapid, it will, before long, become impossible for the newspapers to furnish the reports of the proceedings in and about commencement which they now lay before their readers with such profuseness. The long letters describing with wearisome minuteness what has been described already fifty times will undoubtedly before long be given up. So also, we fancy, will the reports of the “baccalaureate sermons,” if these addresses are to retain their value as pieces of parting advice to young men. There is nothing in the newspaper literature, on the whole, less edifying, and sometimes more amusing, than the reporter’s precis of pulpit discourses, so thoroughly does he deprive them of force find vigor and point, and often of intelligibility. The ordinary sermon addressed on Sunday to the ordinary congregation deals with a great variety of topics, and from many different points of view, and with more or less diversity of method. The baccalaureate sermon, on the other hand, consists, from the necessity of the case, in the main of advice to youths at their entrance on life, and the substance of such discourses can, in the nature of things, undergo no great change from year to year, and must be strikingly similar in all the colleges. Any freshness they may have they must owe to the rhetorical powers of particular preachers, and even these cannot greatly vary in dealing with so familiar a theme. What the old man has to say to the young man, the teacher to the pupil, the father to the son, at the moment when the gates of the great world are flung open to the college graduate, has undergone but little modification in a thousand years, and has become very well known to all collegians long before they take their degree. To make the parting words of warning and encouragement tell on ears that are now eager for other and louder sounds, everything that can be done needs to be done to preserve their freshness and their pathos, and certainly nothing could do as much to deprive them of both one and the other as hashing them up annually in a slovenly report as part of the news of the day.

It is not, however, the advice contained in baccalaureate sermons, but all advice to young men, that needs in our time to be dealt out with greater circumspection and economy. Authority has within the last hundred or even fifty years undergone a serious loss of power, and this loss of power has shown itself nowhere more markedly than in the work of education. It has indeed almost completely changed the relation of parents and children, and teachers and scholars, so that it is now almost as necessary to prove the reasonableness and utility of any course of action which is required of boys as of mature men. Persuasion has, in other words, taken the place of command, and there is nobody left whose dictum owes much of its weight to his years or his office. Boys as well as their elders now expect advice to be based on personal experience, and do not listen with any great seriousness or deference to admonitions the value of which the utterer has not himself personally tested.

It follows, therefore, that the persons whom the young men of our time hear most readily on the conduct of life are those who have had practical acquaintance with the difficulties of living up to the ideals which are so eloquently painted in the college chapel, and who have found out in their own persons what it costs to be pure and upright, and faithful and industrious, and persistent in the struggle that goes on in the various callings which lie outside the college walls. For this reason, probably, no addresses at commencement have the value of those which are delivered now and then by men who have come back for a brief day to tell the next generation of the way life looks to those who for years have been wrestling with its problems, and have had actual experience of the virtues and defects of that early equipment and training on which such enormous sums are now spent in this country. The more advice from this quarter young men get the better. Nobody can talk so effectively to them at the moment when they are about to face the world on their own responsibility as the lawyers and merchants and ministers and politicians who have been facing it for twenty-five or thirty years with all the outward signs of success. If it were possible for every college in the country to get one such man at commencement whose powers of expression would do justice to his experience, and who for this one day in the year would without fear or favor tell what he thought about success and about the conditions of success–about the kind of troubles which beset men in the callings with which he is most familiar–we should probably soon have a body of advice so impressive and fruitful that it would serve the needs and excite the interest of more than one generation. The young have been told to be good until they have grown weary of hearing it, particularly as it is always represented to them as a comparatively simple matter, and when they go out in the world and find what a hard and complex thing duty is they are very apt to look back to the ethical instruction of their college as when in college they looked back to the admonitions of the nursery, and return to their alma mater in later years with much the feeling with which a man visits a kindly old grandmother.