OP-EDS

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January 29, 2008

Current convocation setup is super bad

Change is a pretty hot topic right now. Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton can’t use the word enough. Apple is trying to change our lives with its MacBook Air. Even President Bush has joined the party, saying that if he were to seek a third term, he’d run on a platform of change as well.

Meanwhile in Hyde Park, the U of C’s own version of Dubya has been pushing a similarly ambitious platform of change. Since Robert Zimmer’s inauguration last year, the Uncommon Application has become a little more common, financial aid has become a lot more generous, and U.S. News & World Report has finally noticed that we exist.

But, while some things have changed, our antiquated convocation system has stayed largely the same.

Ever since the Robert Maynard Hutchins administration took over, convocation has followed a pattern as boring and predictable as Dean Boyer’s annual “an unabridged history of the University of Chicago” speech during O-Week. With few exceptions, graduation speakers are always U of C professors who are really just repeating the same talking points we’ve all heard a thousand times: The Great Books are great, the Core is awesome, and the mind has a life.

Every decade or so, one lucky class gets a non-academic speaker at its convocation. For example, Bill Clinton addressed the class of 1999, and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke two years ago. I’m sure Clinton was a home run, but Bloomberg is about as relevant as he is inspirational. Just seeing his face makes me yearn for Dean Boyer’s gentle descriptions of Baptists conquering the prairie to found the Old University of Chicago in the 1850s.

While Nobel Prize– winners and big-city technocrats might do it for some at the U of C, after four years of having my soul stomped by giant dinosaurs, I’m looking for a convocation speaker with something to offer besides tenure, no real life experience, and a list of publications that no one has read. Many of our peer institutions realize that students aren’t really looking for one final lecture. Many schools spend big bucks to get interesting and exciting public figures. Lately Harvard has been pretty successful. John Lithgow, Tim Russert, and Bill Gates have addressed graduates the last three years.

Getting a celebrity to deliver a commencement speech would be a nice change of pace but Harvard’s choices really lack any imagination, with the possible exception of Lithgow, who was path-breaking in Cliffhanger. Any school can pick J.K. Rowling to deliver its commencement speech (as Harvard did this year) but as the popular T-shirt says: “If I’d wanted to hear J.K. Rowling speak, I’d have gone to Harvard.”

I’m not advocating that we just follow the path of our lackluster peers. Rather, we should try and get a speaker who can both deliver a great speech and capture the thoughts, struggles, and ambitions of your average U of C student.

Someone like Michael Cera.

Cera is the 19-year-old star of Superbad and Juno. He previously won acclaim for his role as George Michael Bluth on “Arrested Development.” This might not be the typical curriculum vitae for a U of C convocation speaker, but unlike your average “distinguished service professor and assitant deputy associate provost for undergraduate research assistants,” Cera can speak to us as the awkward misfits that we are.

Throughout his short career, Cera has perfectly portrayed the essence of your average, terminally awkward U of C student, but the Cera phenomenon is about more than just the laughing at nerdy awkwardness. He actually makes being geeky seem sexy—or at least socially acceptable. Our kind used to congregate only on alternating months to LAN and eat pizza bagels. We would have loved to go to parties or come into direct contact with sunlight, but that was never really possible. Society just wasn’t ready for us.

But now, people can’t get enough of us. The forum at Cera’s IMDB page is littered with threads like “does he have a girlfriend?” and “he’s adorable!!” He has the potential to do for nerds what the Beatles did for mop tops and Dustin Diamond did for celebrity sex tapes.

Perhaps most importantly, Cera gets the U of C. When he isn’t elevating our nerdiness to new heights on the screen he is making online videos that mock the networking-obsessed I-banking cyborgs that dominate our classrooms on the East Coast. With over a million views, his “Impossible is the Opposite of Possible” parody of Yale student Aleksey Vayner’s video résumé was sent to every major bank in the Western Hemisphere.

Cera’s video does more to marginalize Vayner and the tools that dominate Ivy League schools than any rousing speech about the Aims of Education ever could.

And if Cera’s busy, we could at least get Robert Fogel. He was in Superbad, right?