On the general outlines of the Obama-honored-by-Notre-Dame fraucus, there can be little question. It’s fairly obvious that this was a bad move on the part of the Notre Dame University leadership, especially when they already had a precedent to follow in that they had not had Clinton — another pro-abortion non-Catholic president who had been a law school hot-shot — as a commencement speaker. It’s fairly obvious this will be seen, not as an opportunity for dialogue, but as the Catholic intellectual establishment endorsing Obama. It’s fairly obvious that Notre Dame will not back down at this point, and to be honest this is very much in keeping with the general tenor of Notre Dame over the last 30 years or so, so that’s hardly a surprise either. It’s generally agreed that Notre Dame is the most elite Catholic college in the US, and also generally understood that the question of whether it is its Catholicism or its elite status that is its controlling characteristic is undecided.
However, there’s a wider question at play here which is, I think, worth considering as regards what academia is and ought to be. It’s become quite common for colleges and universities to bring in commencement speakers who have been successful in the wider world: politicans, CEOs, actors, people well known for their work at non-profits, etc.
This is, I think, in keeping with an attitude that many in academia have that academic study should be something which is clearly applicable to the wider world. Activism and “lessons we can learn from this” thus become frequent class topics. And as such, the topic of commencement ceremonies is often more, “What will you go out and do now that you have your degree,” than, “What is inherently worthwhile about the academics to which you have devoted the recent years of your life.”
As someone who — despite having “gone out into the world” rather than continuing on in academia — has a great deal of respect and affection for study qua study, I frankly think colleges would be a lot better off making less of a fuss about these sort of outside figures. I would think Notre Dame (and colleges in general) would be better served by giving honorary degrees and commencement address opportunities to those who have actually made notable academic or intellectual achievement. In this regard, Obama has written two books about himself, edited the Harvard Law Review but not actually written much of anything, and shown his ability to run a glitzy political campaign. None of these are very impressive intellectual or academic feats, and he’s already been graced with a large and expensive ceremony (called, a believe, an “inauguration”) in recognition of the feats which he has accomplished.
And though I find them ideologically more compatible, I don’t think Reagan, George H. W. Bush or George W. Bush really are the stuff of academic honors any more than Alan Greenspan is the stuff of poetry awards.
At certain kinds of professionally focused schools I could certainly see the case for granting awards to people with significant achievements in the field, a Supreme Court justice at a law school, etc. But having a politician of any stripe (or actor, or CEO, or generally someone with of non-academic distinction) as the speaker at a general commencement strikes me as in appropriate.
And anyway, our best historians and scientists and writers and such cannot expect to receive all of the honors around the world that someone in Obama’s line or work is guaranteed. To lock up honorary degrees and commencement addresses for those with genuine intellectual accomplishments both gives due prominence to intellectual achievements in what is supposed to be an institution devoted to learning and gives more prominence within society to those skills and achievements which are too often overlooked in our celebrity focused culture.