Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Visigoths v. Athenians--the Visigoths Are Winning

The other day, I wondered aloud if BYU graduation was this week. I discovered today that it is. So the Y on the mountain will be lit up at night-- Always a stunning sight!

It will be 10 years ago in August that I graduated from BYU. The commencement speaker in 1999 was billionaire, Jon Hunstman, Sr., whose wife is the daughter of David B. Haight. As I recall it, Huntsman advocated charitable-giving and service in his address.

One year later, in 2000, Neil Postman was the August commencement speaker at BYU. I listened to his speech via the radio in my kitchen in Orem. Enviously, I lamented that I hadn’t had Postman as my commencement speaker. After all, I had read everything that Postman had ever published. And I, perhaps more than anyone sitting in the Marriot Center on the BYU campus, knew the heart and mind of Neil Postman. I had even read his “My Graduation Speech” several years earlier. I wondered if he would give the one I had read or if he had altered it for his BYU audience. ( It was essentially the same.)

Postman wrote his graduation speech before he was ever asked to give one. The reason he gave for composing an unasked for graduation speech was, “Having sat through two dozen or so graduation speeches [he was a professor at New York University], I have naturally wondered why they are so often so bad. … Here I try my hand at writing a graduation speech, and not merely to discover if I can conquer the form. This is precisely what I would like to say to young people if I had their attention for a few minutes.”

The essence of Postman’s graduation speech was a description of the characteristics of the ancient Athenians versus the Visigoths. It was not merely a recitation of history. The reason for telling the graduates about these people? “ . . . because, sooner than you know, you must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other.” He hoped, of course, that the graduates would choose to become Athenians rather than Visigoths. Since Visigoths are polar opposites to Athenians, I have omitted what Postman said about Athenians, and instead give you what he said about Visigoths. I thought it might be useful to ask ourselves if we resemble Visigoths or their opposites:

To a Visigoth, the quest for knowledge is useless unless it can help you to earn money or to gain power over other people.

To a Visigoth, one word is as good as another, one sentence indistinguishable from another. A Visigoth's language aspires to nothing higher than the cliché.

The modern Visigoth cares very little about [tradition or social restraint]. The Visigoths think of themselves as the center of the universe. Tradition exists for their own convenience, good manners are an affectation and a burden, and history is merely what is in yesterday's newspaper.

A modern Visigoth is interested only in his own affairs and has no sense of the meaning of community.

To a Visigoth, there is no measure of artistic excellence except popularity. What catches the fancy of the multitude is good. No other standard is respected or even acknowledged by the Visigoth.

Now, it must be obvious what all of this has to do with you. Eventually, like the rest of us, you must be on one side or the other. You must be an Athenian or a Visigoth. Of course, it is much harder to be an Athenian, for you must learn how to be one, you must work at being one, whereas we are all, in a way, natural-born Visigoths. That is why there are so many more Visigoths than Athenians. I can wish for you no higher compliment than that in the future it will be reported that among your graduating class the Athenians mightily outnumbered the Visigoths.

Postman died slightly more than three years after his commencement address at BYU. I would like to commend whoever it was who recruited him to be the speaker. I hope the BYU graduates of 2000 have taken to heart Postman’s challenge. And I hope all of us who honor his memory are actively conquering the Visigoths that lurk in our own characters and actions.


Zaphod said...

In order to be politically correct, to avoid offending no one, and ultimately turning myself into a mass of confusion that no one in Latin-America will respect, I have decided to become an Athenogoth. PLay nice everyone.

sycispa: a place where an Athenogoth takes a soak.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember my graduation speaker/speech. I was bored to distraction and just wanted to get my degree and beat it out of there. Sigh...Graduation speeches are wasted on the undergraduates.
P.S. What the HECK are you talking about, dad???