IT IS COMMENCEMENT season. Last winter I foolishly agreed to make a commencement speech. Winter is when they get you for commencement speeches. In winter it's hard to believe in commencement. Winter is not a commencing time of year. In a good old Middle Atlantic winter it is only natural to believe nothing will ever commence again.
The hunters who go after commencement speakers know this. So they strike in winter. The phone rings, a letter comes. Will you come in faraway May and make a commencement speech?
Imagine! You -- you of all people! -- are invited to be a commencement speaker! Learned campus authorities want you -- you! -- to send their young produce forth into the world on commencement day.
The honor is almost irresistible. And since May will probably never come, it's unlikely a speech will actually have to be given. Even if May should come, in the meantime you might get lucky and die and not have to make the speech.
All this I know from long experience. Many times have I agreed in dead of winter to make commencement speeches.
So far I have yet to get lucky and die before time to make the speech. Am I an incredibly slow learner or just a cockeyed optimist?
Once again May has, in fact, come. The probability must be faced. What is to be said to American youth this year as it goes forth into the world?
At the start of my commencement-speech career I labored under the influence of Gen. George Marshall, who took the occasion of a Harvard commencement to propose the Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of Europe.
Lacking Marshall's position -- he was secretary of state when he spoke at Harvard -- I had to limit my commencement scope.
Unqualified to propose plans for rebuilding other continents that were in bad shape, I confined myself to calls for the commencing young to go forth into the world and serve their country as nobly as Marshall had.
Then, went the peroration, each of them, too, might one day propose something as noble as the Marshall Plan.
It was the poet Ezra Pound who put an end to this phase of my commencement career. He turned up without warning as an honored guest at a commencement I had promised to harangue at Hamilton College.
What to do? There was no time to revise the speech, to say something that wouldn't sound absurd to a man so finicky about words that he had edited T.S. Eliot for taste. I did what had to be done. I exhorted Ezra Pound to go forth into the world and do good works.
Several years passed before I could face the commencing public again. In that time the world had gone noticeably downhill. It seemed logical to blame this decline on the hordes of commencing students we had been sending forth into the world spring after spring.
Obedient to the command of thousands of commencement orators, they had been going forth into the world, all right, but had not been doing good. I resumed commencement speaking with a new theme.
Instead of urging commencers to go forth, I pleaded against it, begging them not to go forth into the world. It had once been a very good world, thanks to the genius, toil and magnificent character of persons my age.
Lately, however, it had become a highly unsatisfactory world, as an apparently endless stream of new generations went forth into it. Since this constant going forth of commenced persons was making a terrible mess of the world, I begged them to stop going forth.
Many heeded the plea and moved back in with mom and dad. This has earned me many cruel letters from moms and dads. Some express threats. These must be taken seriously nowadays in view of the national dyspepsia resulting, no doubt, from the excessive going forth of recent commencers.
The gist of these threats is that unless I resume urging graduates to go forth I had better give up commencement speeches. This I am perfectly willing to do. I never wanted to give commencement speeches to begin with, and never would if they didn't come after you in winter.
Now here it is -- May already, and still alive. And not an idea in the world.
0 Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.