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J. K. Rowling. They invited J. K. Rowling to speak at Commencement. In four months, I’m going to graduate, having dropped hundreds of thousands of undervalued Canadian dollars on a so-called Harvard education, and then I’m going to get to listen to J.K. Rowling. J. K. freaking Rowling. Awesome.
It’s not that I don’t like J. K. Rowling. In fact, we’ve never been introduced. I am, however, deeply disturbed to be receiving my post-Harvard marching orders from her. This is, after all, a woman who is remarkable for her ability to dupe children into thinking that all they need to face their demons are grit, courage, and a handful of dead relatives. At least Dan Brown managed to get people interested in some important works of art and J. R. R. Tolkien gave short people a reason to live. Our commencement speaker, meanwhile, tricked parents into letting their kids read books filled with sex, murder, and homosexual role models.
You see, listening to the commencement speech is the single most important moment in a Harvard student’s life. Last year’s speaker, Bill Gates, waxed so poetic about “appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity,” that hundreds of graduates quit the lucrative jobs awaiting them on Wall Street and set off to change the world. When U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall announced his eponymous plan for rebuilding Europe after the Second World War in his 1947 commencement address, there were almost certainly dozens of graduates still awake and sober enough to know what he was talking about.
This year, the richest woman in Britain joins an exclusive club, alongside luminaries like Prof. John Huston Finley, the Harvard classicist who delivered the 1982 speech, and publisher Louis B. Martin, the 1970 speaker. Neither has a Wikipedia entry dedicated to him, but at least they weren’t children’s book authors.
As befits their childish choice, Harvard’s mandarins have produced a startling volume of vaguely compelling rationale in Ms. Rowling’s defense, all of it apparently intended for a barely-adolescent audience. University President Drew G. Faust outdid even her sparkle-tastic self when she quipped that, “Harvard isn’t exactly Hogwarts, but I’m sure that her visit with us this June will be a moment of magic.” Magic? Here, at Harvard? OMG!
Harvard Alumni Association President Jonathan L. Byrnes was quick to add that, “There are countless Harry Potter devotees throughout the Harvard family.” Indeed, there are. Unfortunately, most won’t graduate from Harvard for another decade or so.
Rowling follows in a disturbing trend in recent commencement picks. It’s universally recognized that only a world figure—political or diplomatic, that is—could possibly be worthy of the lectern in Tercentenary Theatre and the Harvard doctorate that goes with it. However, not since U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the plenum in 2004 has a man of suitable credentials been chosen. Each of us has sacrificed time and treasure to make it to the end of our Harvard careers, and so the choice of an overpaid peddler of the prepubescent equivalent of drugstore paperbacks is plainly insulting.
Most crucially, Harvard seniors have every right to demand a Harvard-calibre speaker. Harry Potter—and J. K. Rowling—is just a flash in the pan. Writing bedtime stories is lame; just ask Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
What happened to Oprah, who changed the world by inventing a book club completely free of interpersonal contact? Or Hillary Clinton, who surely deserves to somehow follow in her husband’s footsteps this year? The list goes on, full of individuals who are much more worthy than a woman who thinks it’s okay to write 700-page kiddie-lit.
At the end of the day, a commencement speaker is supposed to motivate and inspire graduates, as they stare out into the wild blue yonder of their post-college years. What could J. K. Rowling possibly have to say for herself? Perhaps: “If you want to change the world, sell hundreds of millions of copies of your books. Don’t give up. Follow your dreams. Wingardium Leviosa!”
The Class of 2008 has been royally screwed by Harvard. A petty pop culture personality of questionable permanence will send us on our merry way, while figures of real substance wait in the wings. We deserved better, and now we deserve to bitch about it. At the very least, Harvard might have pitched its choice to the right generation of adolescent fiction readers—and booked us R. L. Stine.
Adam Goldenberg ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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