Didn’t I tell you that EphBlog had a time machine? A few months ago I predicted that Thomas Friedman would say this at Commencement:

Like all my friends I enrolled at the University of Minnesota. But unlike many of my friends, or any of my friends, I decided to major in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. There were not a lot of kids at the University of Minnesota studying Arabic back then. Norwegian, yes; Swedish, yes; Arabic, no. But I loved it; my parents didn’t mind, they could see I enjoyed it. But if I had a dime for every time one of my parents’ friends said to me, “Say Tom, your Dad says you’re studying Arabic, what are you going to do with that?” Well, frankly, it beat the heck out of me.

Turns out that he actually said this:

Like all my friends, I enrolled at the University of Minnesota. But unlike my friends, I decided to major in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. There were not a lot of kids at the University of Minnesota studying Arabic back then. Norwegian, yes; Swedish, yes; Arabic, no. But I loved it; my parents didn’t mind, they could see I enjoyed it. But if I had a dime for every time one of my parents’ friends said to me, “Say Tom, your Dad says you’re studying Arabic, what are you going to do with that?” Well, frankly, it beat the heck out of me.

Classy.

The problem with having famous speakers is that they don’t really care much about Williams. To them it is just another college, another spring morning in an academic gown, another glad-handing College president, another honor. Who even has enough wall space for all the plaques? A few years from now, Friedman won’t remember the differences between this year’s speech at Williams, last years at Washington U or the year before’s at Yale. He’ll have done another half dozen schools, telling each of them about his friends growing up in Minnesota.

None of this is Friedman’s fault. If you are a famous speaker who accepts many awards, you have little choice but to reuse material. Indeed, Friedman is a classier act than Halberstam since he at least changes things a fair amount from year to year.

The lack of class in this case is Williams, and specifically the members of the Honorary Degrees Committee. Why do they insist on honoring people who they know will not return the compliment by honoring Williams with a speech unique to the occasion? It is a weird sort of inferiority complex whereby Williams bestows degrees on people — just for being especially famous/accomplished — who don’t really care about what makes Williams special.

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