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Stephen Colbert to Graduates: “Decide for Yourself What is Right and Wrong”

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Earlier this week, I began a new series on American commencement addresses. Over the next few weeks, we will be taking a look at the advice given to graduates across the country and what this advice shows us about our culture.  

Let’s begin with Stephen Colbert’s address to the graduates of Wake Forest University.

I’m going to bypass the bulk of Colbert’s speech, which is humorous in nature. I do want to point out one of the jokes — a barb directed at millennials. Early on, Colbert references the recent online Twitter debate over a dress being blue or white:

“Grandparents, just know this was the issue that divided a generation. You had the Vietnam War. Your grandchildren had an ambiguously colored Tumblr post.”

This joke reminds me of something I noticed in several of these commencement addresses: the speakers often describe the graduates as needing “a cause” bigger than themselves. Colbert is no exception, but he makes this point by mocking the shallowness of the digital age, and also by comparing this generation’s pursuits to those of previous generations.

Colbert begins to transition from humor to serious counsel when he speaks of the future, something that is “always uncertain.” The one thing we know is that we don t know what the future holds. And neither has any other generation.

Set Your Own Standards

So, what will help graduates navigate the years ahead? First, Colbert says they’ll need the discernment to see the difference between “hype” and “substance.”

Secondly, the most important thing the students need is their own “set of standards.” He adds:

“When you’re out of school, there are no objective criteria for achievement anymore.”

In other words, the test-taking years are over. The rest of life is a test, but you alone are the grader, and you create the test.

Colbert believes that the best way to withstand criticism is to have your own standards, so that you can judge yourself as successful even if other people think you are a failure. You set the bar for yourself, and if you fall short, you can “be an easy grader.” You can “score yourself on a curve” or “give yourself extra credit.” Then, he adds: “You are your own professor now.”

The speech ends with Colbert encouraging the students to “find the courage to decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong” and then to “make the world good according to your standards,” no matter what others might think.

The best part of this speech is Colbert’s counsel to students to see the difference between hype and substance. I wish he had given more attention to this issue. We live in a digital age in which we are deluged with information, and discerning between hype and substance, truth and error, perception and reality is often difficult.

The Harm in Creating Your Own Test

Unfortunately, Colbert moved quickly past this point to what is perhaps the worst possible counsel you

can offer a graduating class: “Set your own standards” and then “grade yourself according to your standards” so you can consider yourself successful even if other people see you as a failure.

Why is this advice so harmful?

Well, to start, let’s admit that Colbert’s intention is noble. He wants to protect the graduates from throwing in the towel when things get tough. He doesn’t want them to define themselves by what their critics say.

For Colbert, the way to avoid a feeling of failure is to create your own test and then grade it yourself. Why worry about passing a test that someone else has created for you? Why feel bad for failing to meet some externally imposed standard?

The problem with Colbert’s advice is that it doesn’t eradicate the feeling of failure or the angst of despair; it just moves it back a level. With no outside referent, with no ideal outside of your own mind and your own experiences, you will constantly wonder: Are my standards right? Did I create a test that is objectively good? Did I shoot high enough? You won’t worry about other people judging your performance, but you’ll always wonder about your self-created standard of judgment for that performance.

True Courage is Seeking Truth

Colbert’s counsel makes sense in an age of self-expression. For many today, the purpose of life is to discover your inner essence (your “true self”) and then express that self to the world. Along these lines, Colbert says it takes “courage” to “decide for yourself what is right and wrong.”

The reality is, it takes absolutely no courage in an age of self-expression to create and live by your own standards. Instead, true courage is not deciding for yourself what is “right and wrong,” but seeking to discover what truly is right and wrong — for yourself and for everybody else. It takes courage to look outside yourself, to bind your heart to an ideal that is bigger than your own set of standards, to investigate truth rather than invent it.

Imagine yourself as a young Adolf Hitler, sitting in the pews of Wake Forest, listening to Colbert’s counsel. “Be courageous! Decide for yourself what is right and wrong, young Adolf! Make the world good according to your own standards!” To which the response comes, “Alrighty, then. I think the world would be better off with a master race.”

Take Colbert’s advice to its logical extreme and we sacrifice our sanity. We have special homes for people who, despite all protestations to the contrary, see themselves as brilliant and successful — the masters of their own destiny and the fulfillment of all their dreams. To shrink the reality of what is “right and wrong” or “success and failure” to one individual’s mind is to shrink our horizons, not expand them.

This is where Colbert’s speech falls short. But since he alone is the judge of his speech’s success, then no critic can possibly be right.

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